a 2016 novella series by
Copyright © 2016 by R.M. Howard
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Rabies Dave’s Babes
Pinpointing a list of bastards would require some old-school methods, but Vince was not surprised. The nature of the individuals assigned for retribution meant that few of the opportunities to interact loosely with the world were open to him. They would not be easily rounded up on Facebook where, if they were to be found, it would probably be as a bunch of fake identities trying to groom teenage girls. Social media might serve as an inadequate attempt at belonging to some kind of community, but the vermin he sought had always been dedicated to working against that no matter what form and means it adopted. These men were vermin. Stamping them out had become his new purpose and he had to be prepared to scour all the nook and crannies.
A few quick searches were enough for Vince to ascertain that this speculation was apt, a finding that further hardened his will to the list and his motivations for dedicating his life and well-being to crossing off each item. As he had always suspected, these individuals possessed a level of vindictiveness too rotten and distorted to change simply because they grew up and matured a little. No doubt they had found cunning ways to appear like they belonged (those that had not made it to prison – in which case the law would make his task easier), but he would not be fooled by any attempts to appear like a law-abiding citizen. These are the villains on whom no jury is required.
Vengeance, therefore, is the face of Vince’s 2016. Unable as he is to move on with life until these old enmities are addressed.
Since writing the list during the gift of spare time that was Leap Day, some thinking on the justification of vengeance has taken place, but only succeeded in fixing his will to the course. Rest assured, the names on this list have not been picked from personal feud only, but qualified by being the lowest of the low. Many additional grievances could be taken up, many individuals he had taken a disliking to included – if his mission was a dishonest one. Instead he has selected only those to have no redeeming features whatsoever; those whose actions are driven solely by cruelty and will continue to work nothing but evil during the course of their miserable lives. In other words, the vermin; and the only way to handle vermin is to round it up for extermination. Law-abiding people decline getting their hands dirty with such a task and so once did he, but this is a decision that Vince has come to look upon with disdain. His life – and many others – would have been very different if someone had been keeping an eye on pest control and, although late to begin now, it is always better late than never. Maybe once the ghosts that haunt him have had their cries answered with retribution at last, Vince can really move on and become whomever he was supposed to be.
The mission is both personal and non-personal, therefore. Serving his own need for closure as well as being selfless in practice. None of the individuals on the list were in his life anymore; they were away troubling other people. Crossing them off would be his own small contribution to the city’s pest control problem and selfless gift to his fellow man. Not enough to change the world or rid Bristol of cockroaches for good, but enough to make a statement that suited a new life philosophy that the first two months of 2016 had caused him to realise: a philosophy that demanded everyone look after the well-being of their own small corner of the world. If everyone did that, the societies and cultures we have built would all be shining lights to aspire to. As a young adult Vince had declined such a calling and his corner became dirty and uninhabitable. Although no longer his to dwell in, by 2017 its stench will be clear and new lives and stories able to flourish once more, rather than perish as did his own.
Each name would make up a project in itself, no major master plan but a series of chores only. Each would present its own challenges and it had served him better to work opportunistically rather than looking to over-manipulate. There was no reason to become entangled in the criminal underworld. He saw great versatility in the fact that he had no stake in whatever schemes were being planned by these individuals, while neither was he tied to law and justice as a police officer would be. The responsibility was his to take if he so chose and the course of action defined only by the limits of his own conscience. Time would tell whether his judgment was kind or harsh, but either way his commitment was to take these names away from their fellow citizens for good… or else for so long that their games become defunct and the world moves on.
It was time to be the vigilante for real and to finally answer the acrimony that had been placed in his path for no just reason whatsoever.
Rather than social media, his first point of research was in the law courts. Even if those who qualified for his retribution list were still free men, he doubted that they had avoided police trouble or a prison welcome during all that time.
His initial endeavours threatened to fly in the face of this theory, however. There was nothing to be found anywhere on the first name to top his list, a factor that could not help but rile him. Luke Carter was the individual on whom he most desired revenge, having been the protagonist behind the vindictive targeting of his household. Maybe someone had beaten him to it and the scum was dead. Lowlife like Carter did not command news attention just because someone beat them to a pulp or stuck a knife in their belly. All the same, he would scale whatever building he had to in order to find out what had happened to his nemesis; theirs was a clash long overdue and, if it had been denied of him, then he would revel in the telling of another’s victory.
All in good time, however. There was a whole list of the fiends and subsequent searches did not prove so fruitless. Very soon he was scouring archived news reports and various accusations, making notes on a whole catalogue of misdemeanours that the names he was motivated to hunt down had either been convicted or accused of.
Darren Burrows he had little reason to dig deep into, knowing exactly where he was and what he was up to, but he looked anyway and found one charge of drug possession and two of grievous bodily harm (GBH). Then it was the turn of the five other usual suspects and here are the notes he made:
Mike Fairclough – one account of battery; one of abusing a police officer; suspected to have slept with minors
Josh Parson – arson; wife beating
George Travello – five years in prison for manslaughter (after one failed attempt at a conviction); multiple charges of GBH; possession of heroin; inciting racial hatred
Craig O’Malley – served eighteen months for biting off a man’s ear; multiple GBH and vandalism
Thomas Cooper – one year for possession of hard drugs and selling to minors
There was more to unearth. He only had the preliminary details of their most obvious misdemeanours that had been confirmed in the public eye. But the information was enough to get him underway as well as to harden his will towards being a self-elected people’s judge and jury over their selected fates.
So what that Carter remained elusive. It would sharpen his mind to leave that pleasure to last anyway. Burrows was next on the list, but he hesitated in jumping into that confrontation after the disruption he had already made via the lad Tonk. That they might be on the alert should not be enough to hold him off – they did not know who he was or what was his intention anyway – but he was intrigued enough to stand back and see what might transpire. An uncertain bunch of drug dealers might become nervous or paranoid and begin unravelling from within. Having got one over on them, it was just too tempting to wait and find out if a better play might be made as a result of their own behaviour.
He would keep half an eye on them but, as a result, his focus had Mike Fairclough instead, which meant taking on the list name that qualified as the most loathsome. In contrast with Carter, it would be good to get this one out of the way early on and then never have to think of him again.
By describing him as ‘loathsome’, Vince was not merely referring to his own opinion in this instance. Fairclough had been a youth who inspired disgust in everyone who encountered him. So much so that, on the one occasion Vince had come into close proximity with the cretin since leaving school, the sighting had been announced as apologetic bad news. Picked up for a gathering of old school friends one summer day, having returned home from university for the summer, the car that had picked him up stopped in a petrol garage so that Saul – the one friend from school he still kept in regular touch with – could pick up some cigarettes. Vince had not seen the fiend himself, which back then proved to be something he would quite happily not do for the rest of his life, but on his return to the driver’s seat Saul had paused to make an announcement.
‘I’m afraid I have some bad news everyone,’ Vince had recalled him saying, turning to look all of the passengers in the eye as if they were all about to be arrested.
‘What’s that?’ they asked.
‘Mike Fairclough is still alive.’
That had been at the grand old age of 20 years old, when even then their young instincts had pictured a grizzly fate for the miscreant as soon as he attempted some form of embrace with the adult world. Ten years later and Vince could still sense him out there, however.
The slime would have done time, that was certain, but such is the way with prisons these days that they hold only the most hardened and notorious of criminals. Plus, there was one quality that Vince thought might have kept him from a permanent home behind bars, which was cowardice.
Fairclough was not the kind of villain who stood at the front of the gang, giving orders and practising the power game. Rather he was the one that hit you on the back of the head the moment that incident had appeared to dissipate and everyone’s attention was diverted; as a teenager he was someone you could face down if circumstance demanded, but after you walked away you were likely to realise something wet had hit you on the back of the head. Fairclough liked to spit and the girls, who would often be teased about the idea of going out with the letch, would shudder at the thought of coming into physical contact with him. A lack of cleanliness added to the impression that he was a diseased creature in some way and someone had coined the whispered nickname ‘Rabies Dave’ – presumably someone who did not know his name was Mike.
As it turned out, against all the odds it was Rabies Dave’s charm with the ladies that enabled him to steer a path away from spitting on the back of his schoolmates’ hair. Though there was not a fellow Oldbury High graduate that Vince paid less attention to after their tie-wearing days came to an end, the memory of the close encounter also brought up some small talk he now longed to know the basis of. The alert might have come from Saul but it was their friend Josh, sitting in the passenger seat, who said something about Fairclough now being in the business of bribing girls with drugs – while also hinting at prostitution.
The memory was sketchy, but consequently the reference of sex with minors stood out. Somewhere out in the streets of Bristol there was a stench that, if one had the ability to follow like an obedient bloodhound, would ultimately lead to the frowzy gonads of Rabies Dave. It was the kind of trail that led down dark alleyways and into salubrious accommodations, rarely breaking into the open and shrinking from public glare entirely. In this instance, Vince could almost acquit the fuzz from blame for failing to hunt him down, but Fairclough was on the list and what better way to get a job underway than by getting your hands dirty?
So far, since his impromptu move from loving relationship to bachelor pad, Vince had not called on any of his family or friends or sent any update or explanation concerning his situation. Saul’s involvement in his recollection meant that he was at last urged to contact one of them, however, and, although they only managed to meet up once or twice a year, the former schoolmate and drinking buddy was probably the only person out there he considered a close friend. ‘Close’ meaning someone he could rely on – and vice versa if called upon in a crisis – as opposed to just being someone to speak to or socialise with from time to time.
Calling on compassion when a certain Mr Lover Lover had been revising poetry on top of Vince’s girl had not been his way. He was far too proud to ever seek out sympathy – would much rather not have it at all – but circumstance did mean that there was more than enough reason to get in touch.
Picking up his phone and firing off a text, Vince allowed his mind to wander to more practical matters, his eyes lingering on the baseball bat that had been February’s weapon of choice. As a result, he began to muse over what else in his possessions could be adapted to achieve someone’s demise.
What was it Coriolanus once said?
‘Where were you the other night?’
There were no lights on in the kitchen when Tracey entered which, from experience, could mean all kinds of uncertainties. One time, when her eyes had adjusted to the light, she had found that Mike was only wearing a t-shirt. On that occasion there had been no explanation and she had not asked for one, neither did she need to on the occasion he had been doing something Italian with the head of a mannequin. Her pimp was a shameless man; the embodiment of the word ‘fiend’. A name he would probably take as a compliment if accused of being one. Working with him was a necessary evil since he replaced her ex in the role (her ‘vanished’ ex) and it was fortunate she had not had to service him in the same way as she had some of the clients. Otherwise the phrase ’better the devil you know’ might have been apt, even though her ex had beaten her, but the thought of going near Mike made her shudder. Thankfully the system had been in place and so she did not owe him anything for setting it up. Somehow he had become a convenient pawn and was chosen as a replacement. Fortunately she knew enough people to ensure he kept his hands off her and, besides, Tracey was a bit old for his tastes anyway.
‘I was doing a favour for Geko,’ she replied.
She did not explain any further. That was about the best answer she could give to ensure he did not pry. Geko was the very person behind the disappearance of her ex and so it was him she was really indebted to – only he wasn’t a pimp and so she ended up working for Mike.
At the name of Geko, Mike shifted a little uneasily in his seat then reached forward to pick up his cigarette pack from the table. If he was wearing nothing under the table again then he would have to be careful where he flicked his ash, she thought.
‘Well I needed you,’ he went on, but only after he had lit a cigarette and taken his first drag. Mike did not do anything quickly, least of all get to the point.
‘What do you want me do…?’ she began.
‘A heads up would have been nice.’
‘Fund one of those expensive iPhones for me and I’ll send you hourly updates.’
‘Let me film you on it a little and we have a deal.’
‘No thanks. I specialise in memories only. Now was there something you needed me for?’
‘Always in such a rush aren’t we,’ he replied, then pausing to let another plume of smoke escape from his lungs. ‘There’s a little task that’s come down from on high. All of the girls need to comply – you as well.’
‘Aren’t the girls working hard enough?’
‘This isn’t work. This is information.’
‘What kind of information?’
‘Every girl,’ Mike announced, pointing with his index finger to make certain the point was received. ‘Every girl, with every client must – in a casual manner – enquire after the name Wordsworth.’
‘Wordsworth? What the hell for?’
‘That’s no concern of yours. Just make sure it’s done. I want you to tell them; every girl, every client.’
‘Enquire about what exactly?’
‘Nothing… and everything.’
‘What’s that mean?’
‘Every piece of information on this Wordsworth must be reported, but ask no specific questions and give no specific purpose. Mention the name casually; like you’re trying to hunt down a new pimp or drug dealer you’ve heard of. Offer them extra favours if it looks like they’re holding back on something.’
‘Use your imagination,’ he replied, adding, ‘Don’t worry. Any successes will be rewarded. But be careful with this one Tracey.’
‘For any lies or exaggerations, there will be consequences. Ones that even your friend Geko couldn’t stand in the way of. Play it clean sweet cheeks, you and your girls. Otherwise you will make trouble for both of us.’
Tracey noticed that it was always ‘her girls’ whenever something foul was in the air, but decided not to dwell on any air of contention. She might have had protection against Mike but she did not rule out him conducting something devious if she became a problem for him.
‘Got it!’ she replied. ‘Is that all?’
‘There’s one other thing before you go,’ he replied. ‘A personal matter.’
‘What’s that, Mike?’
‘That new girl, what’s her name?’
Because it was dark, Tracey was not wary of rolling her eyes, though she had been wary of the question. The new girl was kind of elfin-looking; pretty face and great legs but slim and flat-chested. She had been afraid that might fit her pimp’s type but what could be done? All girls had to choose their own limits and not everyone had a friend like Geko exchanging favours with them. Women of the night need pimps and most of them demand favours as well as money in return for their protection. If the girl wanted to finance her smack addiction then it looked like she would have to become Mike’s plaything.
‘She’s called Britney.’
‘Britney, huh!’ Predictably the name seemed to amuse him. ‘See to it she drops by and has a word with me tomorrow.’
The bar Saul had chosen for their Thursday night meet up had been a regular haunt when they had hit drinking age. Vince thought they might look out of place among all the students and young lads chatting up girls he expected to find there, but times had changed. The Old Horse’s interior had been renovated to draw a finer crowd and was now more of an eatery than what the two of them thought as a proper pub. Other than a tiny area close to the bar, everything else had been cordoned off and reserved for customers who wanted to sit down and have a nice meal, enjoying a couple of drinks in the process and then leaving without even being over the limit yet. The place can’t have seen a real drunk for years, which might be more civilised but just seemed wrong to them. Just over a decade ago when they had hit legal age, pubs had been the domain of serious drinkers, not people having a pleasant meal. Things have really gone downhill.
Though the two of them had not spoken for several months, after ordering a couple of beers and squeezing their behinds onto a couple of bar stools, they spent some time sitting in silence staring around blank-faced at the scenes of polite sobriety where revelry had once made a home. Life may have taken them away from drinking every Friday and Saturday night (and once upon a time every other night as well), but they had both expected pubs to be the same when they returned. Streets and buildings could change their appearance without them pausing for contemplation, but the sanctity of the drinker’s retreat was sacred; had defined their first steps into the wider world, in fact. Seeing it wearing a different face only reminded them they were youths no more; all the place needed was mirrored walls to really rub in that time had moved on and they were supposed to have too. The two of them looked like natural customers of the place and that in itself was even more goading.
‘What a crock of shit,’ Vince reflected, starting the disenchanted drunk talk before he’d even had a sip of his pint.
‘If only I had known when Cassie had me redecorating the house,’ Saul replied, ‘that there were interior design experts here I would have come and consulted.’
Saul was clearly accepting the woes of being a thirty-something with a healthier sense of humour than he was, although you had to have known him well, as Vince did, to understand that he was being sarcastic. Usually sarcasm succeeded in affecting the tone of speech, but for Saul it was his default setting and delivered as dryly as any genuine comment might. A listener had to rely on powers of perception alone to know what he was really saying.
‘How is the fair lady?’ Vince asked at mention of Cassie who he had only met twice, despite their long friendship. Once at the wedding and once at the stag do (which she had attended in disguise).
‘Good, man…’ Saul began, then checked himself. ‘Oh, I’m sorry man, insensitive of me.’
‘Well, with you and….’
‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ Vince replied, realising his friend might have been trying to avoid rubbing in the fact that he was still in a loving relationship. ‘I’ve felt more alive than I ever had since leaving her. What lies ahead is a mystery but nothing new there – we weren’t going anywhere.’
‘I suppose I might as well get it out of the way,’ Saul continued, ‘but when I heard I was surprised that you didn’t leave that dipshit black and blue. I know I’m the one with the short fuse but I also know that on the rare occasion you do blow your top people should watch out.’
There was a knowing smile accompanying this comment, which Vince knew referred to a yob he once ejected from the bus they were on because he had been abusing the older people. At the time he had been disappointed the lad and his friends had not fought back and Saul had often laughed about the fact that no one could look him in the eye for the rest of the day – although Vince insisted he had calmed down immediately.
‘I was just glad to get out of there,’ said Vince, sticking to the present. ‘I can do whatever the heck I like with my evenings now.’
‘Which is working-out a little I see,’ Saul observed, pointing to Vince’s biceps, though he had been unaware all the press-ups had made much of a difference yet.
‘There’s no need to try and make me feel good about myself,’ he replied. ‘I’m not depressed or in need of therapy… well, not for the relationship breaking up anyway, only for the usual.’
‘I’m serious, you’re starting to look ripped.’
‘Even if so, still a bit of catching up to do,’ Vince remarked. Saul had always been the most athletic of his group of friends when they were growing up and, if they hadn’t have drank so much, might have been able to pursue a career as a 400m sprinter. He still had the build though, despite a nine-to-five job and his first kid. Vince had never bothered to figure out the exact roots of his friend’s family tree but he was aware that Saul had some Canadian relatives who had played professional basketball back in the 80s. Rather than being seen as black, he passed for a tanned white man, but as a teenager had sported dreadlocks that were more of a giveaway of his family ties. Both of them had several memories of pub conversations when, for whatever reason, some clumsy individual had decided to turn the air racist in that annoying way prejudiced people have of presuming everyone with the same colour skin as them agrees. Watching brainwashed fascists marching up and down the centre of North Korea unaware of how ridiculous they look offers a certain degree of amusement (as long as they keep away from the nuclear weapons), but watching one having to apologise on discovering they have been talking to a man not quite as white as they thought because they don’t want to be beaten up by him even more so. Under Saul’s steely grin all the ridiculous excuses came out, ‘I didn’t mean all black people’ and ‘I’m not actually racist but…’
To a certain extent, living in a free country means making up our own version of the world in order to fake an understanding of it. The only question being do we choose a positive or negative interpretation? Unlike the North Koreans, Vince has not been completely honest with his oldest friend in revealing that he has now succumbed to his own negative version. Rather than falling into bigoted hatred, however, Vince’s choice of discontent to wallow in is that of vengeance and he was keen to fake a few reminiscences of the old days – even though their usual rule was to avoid doing that – in order to get to the point. Not that Saul would be in any position to guess what the point was, so far from like-mindedness had their paths now been sundered.
‘Speaking of someone who could do with a little therapy,’ Vince began, ‘you’ll never guess who I saw – or thought I saw – the other day?’
‘He’s more of a what than a who? I feel a bit dirty even saying the name.’
Saul clearly felt the same way, pausing with his mouthful of beer as if for fear that its contents had become infected.
‘Two names spring to mind,’ he replied, once he had persuaded his stomach to accept the content. ‘Travello or…?’
Vince shook his head.
‘Not… Rabies Dave?’
‘Got it in two.’
‘You didn’t speak to him?’
‘No no! Just clocked him at the bus stop one day; pity the poor soul who ends up sitting next to him on their way into town. The thing is, I was sure he had been put away for sex with minors.’
‘No, not completely true,’ Saul replied, this time it was his turn to shake his head. ‘Turns out they could only get him for exposing himself; he didn’t spend long inside at all.’
‘Amazing how someone like that gets to live a free life,’ said Vince, ‘when the rest of us are scared of going to prison for making a mistake on our tax return, or forgetting to pay our car insurance.’
‘Prisons are all full up though,’ Saul went on. ‘The government won’t admit it but it’s actually pretty hard to end up in prison these days.’
‘How do you suppose he gets by? Benefits cheat or something?’ Vince asked, knowing that as soon as Saul said the word ‘government’ that it was likely to lead to a rant about all kinds of injustices that a whole town of vigilantes would fail to cope with. It was a source of debate on which they often disagreed; Saul thought the ruling powers were to blame for everything that was wrong in society; Vince thought they were just an easy target and that the real problem was the general population, who were, after all, to blame for electing the governments.
‘Oh, he’s a pimp, so I hear,’ Saul revealed.
‘What you mean girls actually put their well-being in his hands?’
‘And other things no doubt.’
‘But that’s like putting a homeless drunk in charge of this pub.’
‘Or a pig fucker in charge of the government.’
‘No, Saul,’ Vince protested, realising that his friend had indeed done what he was trying to avoid him doing and redirected the conversation about Rabies Dave to that of Prime Minister David Cameron. ‘You’re wrong there he went on; a homeless drunk in charge of a pub offers no similarity to a pig lover running the country.’
‘How is that not the same?’
‘A drunken tramp could not run a pub properly, a pig lover is perfectly capable of running this great nation?’
‘I’m not saying I like Cameron, but pig lovers are people too and they should be respected and be allowed to rise to power as much as any other person. That’s what makes this country great,’ he concluded, slamming his fist on the bar in order to ram his point home.
‘Of course if a tramp ran a pub he would no longer be homeless,’ Saul replied, ‘but a pig fucker gets made prime minister, he is still a pig fucker.’
Vince didn’t know what point Saul was trying to make with that last comment and supposed he just said it because he thought it sounded witty. Up until then the debate had been perfectly decent but had now descended into farce – and Vince wanted to get back to the subject of Rabies Dave somehow. Saul was such a street-wise person, the kind that would stop for several conversations on every street he walked down, so he would surely have some idea where the loathsome cretin had gotten to. It didn’t make much sense that the two of them had struck up a friendship. In comparison, Vince lived with his head in the clouds and seeing someone in the street who he knew enough to speak to was a rare occurrence.
‘Come on, Saul,’ Vince said, after downing the last of his pint, ‘I know you’ve another one or two in you before Cassie comes out of hiding and slaps you down but let’s seek out a proper drinker’s pub instead.’
‘I sort of agree, but this was always our haunt in these parts. I don’t know any of the other pubs.’
‘Let’s try the Crab Tree, it’s only five minutes away.’
‘Bit of a rough hole.’
‘So what, every pub needs customers these days.’
Even as they debated, they were up and on their way out of the door.
‘Besides,’ said Vince, as the fresh air hit their faces, ‘it could be fate. We might see Rabies Dave there and be able to haggle him down for a couple of fine wenches.’
‘Ha! I could happily go another decade without hearing that name,’ Saul replied. ‘Besides, I hear his little venture is over in Cotham, tucked in next to the rail-line somewhere like a rat waiting for roadkill.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Yeah, so we’re safe unless we ever make the mistake of heading down to the arse end of Bristol. I don’t imagine he walks this far; you can’t go more than five minutes from your home when you’re unable to go fifteen minutes without burping the worm.’
Suddenly Saul could have ranted about the government for as long as he wished. Vince had gotten exactly what he wanted from their meetup; a radar to the first in a list of cretins he was planning on spending the best part of a year hunting down. If he didn’t manage to cross one of them off by the end of March then he would fear for the contents getting the better of him, but the likelihood of being able to locate Fairclough brought him back into focus. The pervert was likely to prove as repellent to fellow criminals as to law-abiding citizens so Vince did not imagine having to contend with a bunch of heavies, unlike when it came to bringing down Burrows. All he needed to do now was make a positive identification and then decide what form retribution should take. If his friend was right about an ineffective prison system, then something more extreme than leaving false evidence for the police to muse over might be required.
Allowing himself to relax for the rest of the evening, Vince avoided dredging up any further memories from their upbringing and even feigned amusement in the fortunes of Bristol Rovers and speculation over whether Adam Johnson could have actually become a prolific England forward if he had not spent his time – much like Rabies Dave – chasing teenage girls.
Once inside the Crab Tree, Saul announced that he would probably have to make it his last pint, being a father with responsibilities these days, though admitting that he was in the mood for resurrecting one of their pub crawls of old. Vince accepted it would have to wait for another day but insisted he would soon make a social visit – now that mundane weekend activities had become Mr Lover Lover’s misfortune – and actually see the baby who, if Saul had been a religious, he would now probably be Godfather to.
Vince didn’t pay much attention to the quality of the pub they had found, so was only semi-conscious of the fact that it was a complete dive. Their enforced choice of drinking establishment would not remain unnoticed, however. When it came to making their last toast of the evening (which at Saul’s request was made to Wizbit) Vince felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around to find that he was faced with someone he had not noticed.
Had he been even semi-alert he really should have given at least a courtesy glance over at the shiniest head in the place. The face it belonged to did register – just not fast enough.
Vince turned around to see the same skinhead he’d had an altercation with in the Hamble Bearer back in January when he had been hunting for clues of the thief Ashton. Now back in striking distance, his foe did not wait for any introduction, pausing only long enough to allow for recognition before mercilessly butting his forehead into Vince’s face.
What happened next was a bit of a blur. Vince recalled hitting the floor with his back to the wall, but was unable to get up immediately. There were arms flailing and a serious of vague images of Saul and the skinhead having an altercation hit home, before a crowd of people separated the two. Then Vince recalled his friend helping him up, then they were outside and he was not so sure on his feet. Coming round a little sitting on a wall in the car park – there was no sign of the skinhead – that was when Vince realised his lips and chin were warm with blood, which looking down confirmed to have run all down his beige shirt.
Some people walking on the other side of the road were endeavouring both to look at him and to avoid his gaze at the same time. There was another tap on his shoulder. This time it was only Saul again and there was a taxi behind him his friend had somehow managing to order. Both of them got inside, but he would not remember anything that was said until halfway through the journey back to his flat.
‘You sure you’re going to be alright?’ his friend had been asking, indicating they must have been having some kind of sentient conversation.
‘I’m good,’ Vince remembered responding. ‘The blood makes it looks worse than it is; I’ll clean up easily.’
‘What a cheap shot,’ Saul, who had not been struck in the subsequent altercation during which the pair had kept each other at arm’s length, was infuriated. Vince just felt numb though and was hardly able to stir up any emotions at all.
‘Just a reminder to keep doing the press-ups,’ he remembered saying. Once they had reached his flat Vince had to insist he was fine and didn’t need help getting cleaned up. Claiming he’d had worse before when playing football and ordering Saul to get home himself, he went inside and stuck his face in the bathroom sink, letting the tap water run down his nose as it continued to bleed and bleed some more.
The rest of the night and the morning that followed continued to hold him in a haze. For once deep sleep set in and he woke up numb, not just from the throbbing in the middle of his face, but all over his body, as if the butt that put him to the ground had shaken all his bones from head to toe.
He was too numb to feel anything. No shock, fear or upset accompanied his stupor, rather all the turmoil and resentment that had filled his days since returning to the streets of his home had been neutralised. Vince was aware of his list but only as a decision he had made, rather than an urge that drove him. Even remembering the skinhead failed to bring any anger to the surface. He had taken a smack in the face, that was all. As a child it might have taken him weeks to get over such an incident, but as a man it hardly seemed to matter. Was trivial in comparison to the blows he had suffered in trying to live a straight and worthy life which, unlike the head butt, had been inflicted with no malice whatsoever.
The world was unchanging to the ambitions of his generation. If anything it seemed fitting that he would re-emerge with a new face as well as a new mission the next time he stepped outside. Taking a better look at the damage in the bathroom mirror, now the bleeding had stopped and his eyes were no longer blurry, he saw that the nose was likely broken. The damage could have been far worse as far as nose breaks go; he wasn’t due to look entirely non-symmetrical as the careers of some boxers and rugby players end up achieving. Still only hours after the encounter, however, it was swelled and obvious to anyone what had happened, accompanied by a faint blackening around the eyes if you looked close enough, but once the swelling had died down he would probably get away with not having to tell a story every time he bumped into someone who knew him. He couldn’t lie to his own reflection though. The old nose was now at a slight angle and he would have to accept that he would not emerge as Dorian Gray from his exploits, clean and perfect as in the days when he had made no move to disrupt anyone’s existence.
Empty headed, Vince sat in his living room facing daytime television broadcasts, taking in nothing but supposing that was exactly how such programmes are meant to be watched. He was entirely at peace until there came a knock at the door.
Half expecting to see Saul being over-considerate about his ability to cope with taking a beating, if wrong he thought his thuggish appearance might scare off whatever salesperson and charity worker was chancing his abode and so he decided to answer. Instead he opened the door to see none other than his ex Laura standing there. Trust her to choose such a time to knock when needless drama could be made out of something that was not of her concern.
‘What’s happened to you?’ she asked, having initially opened her mouth to say something else – clearly wanting to get the first word in.
Vince gave no response other than to leave the door open so she could enter, then went to sit back down facing the TV where he had been content enough until her appearance. His numb state of mind would be useful in letting whatever it was she wanted wash over him.
‘Kettle’s just boiled if you want a tea,’ he told her, ignoring the fact that she was standing in his living room with her hands on her hips as if he had been a miscreant.
‘What on earth have you been getting up to?’ she tried again.
‘Why should that concern you?’
‘Has someone mugged you?’
‘I got a head butt in the pube yesterday. Some guy decided he didn’t like me for some reason.’
‘In the pube?’
‘In one of Bristol’s fine pubic bars. Speaking of pubes how’s Mr Lover Lover? Recovered from the shock of being under your thumb yet?’
‘How very mature of you.’
‘I’m not the one that cheated,’ he replied. ‘Talking down to me won’t work, now get to the point. What are you doing here, Laura? Need another fence fixing?’
‘I came to see how you are if you must know – and not too good by the look of things.’
‘Why do you care?’
‘I know these have been unfriendly times Vince, but we’ve known each other so long there’s only a certain amount of time we can be uncivil.’
It required some astonishing remarks to cut through Vince’s foggy head there and then, but Laura had achieved them. In disbelief, he could not help but turn to look up at her in trying to figure out whether she was being serious. Did she genuinely think their lives should still be connected in some way?
‘What are you talking about?’ he asked.
‘I was going to ask if you want to come over for dinner sometime? Clear the air a little; start the healing process.’
‘Healing process? Laura, if you seriously think I want to sit round a table with you and Sven Goran Erikson just to amuse whatever conscience it is you’re having trouble with, you must be losing your mind…’
‘It’s not my conscience it’s–’
‘It’s not as if we have kids we have to talk about. We don’t even have pets, Laura. There’s no reason whatsoever for us to be conversing at all.’
‘We may need to sign over tenancy papers.’
‘I don’t know yet.’
‘Why didn’t you just say so?’
‘I just thought we could be a bit more civil about it, that’s all.’
‘At what point have I not been civil? Anyway, where is Mr Bombastic himself, isn’t he bothered about you coming to see me all on your own?’
‘He’s in the car.’
‘What’s he doing there, does he think I’m a nutter or something? I did have a hammer in my hand when we were fixing that fence, you know?’
‘I just thought it would be easier if I…’
‘Well you know what thought did, didn’t ya!’ Vince cut her off, becoming more insolent in tone. ‘Give me a break, Laura! I’m missing The Wright Stuff.’
His request was taken literally and Laura walked out. Thankfully the strange exchange was over with. Vince did not care enough to think deeply on what it might have really been about, but if his ex was genuinely harbouring the impression that they would be remaining friends in some capacity then she was pursuing a delusion.
Laura had been the one responsible for taking the steps that brought their relationship to an end, so it was hypocritical that she was still peddling the same material of unrealistic expectations.
As for Vince, his eyes were open and, although numb from his encounter with the violent skinhead, the gerbil in his brain had already begun the process of refitting the wheel, ready to start running again to achieve something that was realistic. Where better to start than stamping out the most filthiest and diseased cockroach it had ever been his misfortune to be downwind of?
The Lake Estate was quieter than usual for a Saturday evening, but that was because it was Ashton’s boys that made all the noise there and so it didn’t surprise him. Everyone else who lived in the triple block of flats had learned to cower, except for the gangs of fourteen year olds who were immune so long as they gave away none of the secrets they overheard. Kids and their anti-social behaviour were convenient for drawing attention away from the more serious criminal endeavour that went on there. The flats were the epicentre of Bristol’s drug empire. Not, as was rumoured, where he lived (it was always handy to give residents the impression that their worst nightmare might suddenly open a door and emerge), but it was where all their operations were masterminded and allowed to flourish.
All monies were accrued there and all one-to-one business undertaken, whether it was employing new dealers, discussing new prices and strategy, or setting secret missions for his heavies. None of the gear was distributed; that would have been too obvious and only lead to inevitable police raids. No, the product was handled far more discreetly than by bringing it to a rundown estate, regardless that many of the residents there were users anyway. The usual plan was to keep the air noisy with intimidation because, if there always appeared to be a lot going on, then it was more difficult for anyone watching to really target what the cause was. Having numerous addicts who owed money in close proximity, in addition to the habit of seeing many grievances solved in full view of multiple windows within the estate’s car park, kept up the impression that the Ashton kingdom was not one to take lightly.
For his part he was always keen to walk the walk as well as talk the talk as much as possible, but still the estate was quiet and he knew exactly why. One of his boys had been beaten up for, what was obvious, no reason other than to send a message and so he had sent his boys out to hunt down whomever the perpetrator was.
Experience had taught him to deal with such incidents straightaway; to take them seriously even when they might appear slight and unimpressive. Besides, his boys were at their best when they were hunting down some feud, whether it was potent or not and he had been insistent, even vociferous, that they stayed on this one – if just to figure out what it was. When rival gangs sent messages, it was usually quieter but messier – as it was when he had to take such steps. Give them bloody stains and disfigured faces but say absolutely nothing. Showing rivals what the result of stepping on another’s territory was without actually saying anything was the way to really stir up fear and reputation. Broadcasting your name about was saved for more significant victories, as when masterminding the downfall of someone with notoriety. This account from the lad Tonk, which he did not doubt, was not the typical threat, whether ill-conceived or not. By all appearances it seemed the attacker had Tonk completely at his mercy, before settling with leaving him a bit dazed and then going ahead and giving him a name: Wordsworth. Though clearly a street name – albeit a bad one – Ashton couldn’t figure out the motivations behind giving it if no one had even heard of it. Even if the name had nothing to do with the drug business and was some kind of personal feud there simply had to be some context.
For over a week now he had waited for leads of any kind and heard nothing. The name was starting to sound like a bad joke but that was not important. Now people had heard the name they also needed to hear of its demise. Regardless of what was behind the name of Wordsworth, its insult needed to be pinned on someone and that person pinned to the floor. Make a show of every threat, however small. That was what the man who put him in his position demanded, teaching him that if he got that right then everything else would take care of itself.
Everyone is beholden to someone and that was his secret, not that anyone but his closest underlings knew so – and even they did not have any personal relationship his predecessor. The Bristol drug empire he ran had begun as a pilot project, whose owner had since moved on from. Heading down the M4 to London and turning kingdom into empire; where the profits involved turned the leading drug dealers into underground celebrities. Ashton had been told to keep this thing going – keep the reputation of the owner high in his homeland – and the profit for what went on in Bristol was all his. It was a role he had always taken seriously; necessarily so seeing as it was from London that his product came, though again that detail is known to very few. There were not supposed to be any visible links to what went on in the capital, but Ashton kept up his charge as surely as a noble knight to his lord.
One lesson that taking over from his predecessor had taught him was that being at the top was a lonely job and there was something about not knowing what danger approached that worked to enhance that loneliness. The higher you climb the harder the fall, and Ashton was beginning to feel paranoia encroaching about the Lake Estate like vines. Invisible hands were lurking, reaching out to choke him unless he could find the poison to hold them off for another season.
There was that question again he had sought to train his brain not to ask – how long can I be the main man?
He was supposed to be permanent and unassailable so long as he looked after the resources, but the question was there during each moment of doubt, reminding him that he was standing in another’s shoes and might only be fit to wear them for a limited amount of time. Somehow he needed to believe that he could be the architect too and it was the return of two of his heavies, as he sat and ruminated on this niggling puzzle, that allowed him to get started on another trial of his own adequacy.
‘What have you got for me?’ he demanded, not even turning round on hearing them enter. Two sets of feet meant it was Wez and Dez, rather than Geko – his two most feared heavies next to the big man who always insisted on working alone.
‘We checked out Tonk,’ one of them (probably Wez) reported. ‘Seems cool; he’s got his business in order.’
‘I didn’t think Geko would recommend someone who wasn’t up to being a simple dealer,’ Ashton replied. ‘Tell me you have something else.’
‘We’ve had some of a local gang of youths up against the wall,’ the other one added (Dez’s voice always sounded slightly gravelly to Ashton and that was how he told them apart, even though others disagreed and said it was the other way around – otherwise the two of them were cut from the same cloth and came across to many as brothers. It was rumoured that the only real difference between them was that Dez had a tail. Not a long swishy tail like that a cat might have, but a short stumpy triangle, more like a deer. The story went that someone had once dared ask him about said tail and Dez had insisted on breaking every finger in the questioner’s hands – as far as Ashton was aware, no one else had broached the subject since).
‘I trust you didn’t scare them so bad that they just told you anything,’ Ashton commented.
‘Their leader is some lad called Elcott,’ Wez went on. ‘He didn’t know anything, but a couple of his friends insisted that this “Wordsworth” drove off in a Ford Focus.’
At this piece of news Ashton stood up and turned to consider his two investigators for any sign of gullibility being at work, but he found that the details were just too bizarre not to be true.
‘A Ford Focus,’ he replied. ‘No drug dealer who wants to challenge me would be seen dead driving around in a Ford Focus; neither would their hitmen. This isn’t a challenge after all.’
‘Then why do it?’ Dez asked.
‘Vengeance,’ Ashton replied.
‘Anything. The relative of someone who got hooked on our product and ended up six feet under; the buddy of someone we left sipping a straw in a care home. What does it matter?’
‘But why attack Tonk?’
‘They couldn’t get close so they attack what they can. But this bastard knows who we are – and we’ll be hearing from him again. During our next meet ups we’ll be sending out a new message, every possible known feud – no matter how slight – is to be discussed. Gonna be a busy few weeks for you two; there’s quite a few visits I imagine you’ll need to make.’
Back out on the streets and indulging in his new hobby again, Vince forgot all about Laura and what was really behind her visit, and gave no more thought to his swollen nose and the battering his ego had taken at coming face to face with that skinhead again. There would likely come a time when they bumped into each other for a third meeting and he would have to train his instincts to adopt some kind of light-footed sidestep whenever someone tapped him on the shoulder.
Initially, for the rest of the weekend, his physical being had continued to feel shaken by the assault – literally so, as if his bones were still vibrating from the impact. But after the second night, strength had started to return to his limbs and he was beginning to feel focused again. More than that even. Though it was a long time in getting to his feet to hit back, that was exactly what he felt like doing. A broken nose and mild concussion had not shaken his resolve to cross the items off his list; nothing ever had and, as it could not be helped that the skinhead was no longer around to aim a clenched fist at, what better medicine than turning his embryonic retribution in the direction of the filth Fairclough, especially now he knew, more or less, where the wretch resided.
In some ways the skinhead had actually done him a favour. Vince’s commitment to the workplace had been wavering as it was and, in a beat-up state, he found no objection towards being completely honest about what had happened – exaggerating the concussion a little – and earning a couple of days off. He could wait for Rabies Dave at his leisure, watching the world go by from the front of his car and with Moby Dick by his side if he became bored.
His eyes were drawn to a bundle of two-storey flats tucked in under the railway line, not unlike the one he had moved to in design, only grotty and crooked in form. Like an old piece of furniture pushed to one side during a renovation but not yet thrown in the skip. Vince did not imagine the vermin being anywhere else. As modest as the street was, they were likely still properties with a mortgage or moderately priced tenancies. Imagining Fairclough holding down such commitments was a stretch. What slim accounts he’d gathered did not suggest this list item had turned over any new leaf and so he would dedicate two full days, if need be, to finding out who resided there. Even porn addicts had to come out for milk and bread sometimes.
He sat there unconcerned from 9am onwards. Taking advantage of a convenient parking space because of the residents who had driven off to work, he enjoyed a view that was both casual and discreet. It was 11am when the Pequod finally set sail, which happened to coincide with the first sign of activity in relation to those unkempt walls. Not from within, but from the exterior of Vince’s field of vision as well as the abode.
He was aware of the approach by the sound of high heels hitting the pavement and could not help but mark her path before knowing that she was even heading towards the flats.
She was young. Vince thought probably older than her figure suggested but still couldn’t imagine her being much more than 20. If it was the middle of summer her clothes would not have made it immediately obvious that she was a sex worker, but bare legs in the middle of March stood out even though the one-piece that trailed beneath her coat did reach to the knees.
Something about the task he had set for 2016 was making him more observant. Previously he would have only given such a vulnerable creature the slightest of glances, despite sensing there was tragedy there; a tragedy that the first embers of world-weariness serve to reject at the very moment a young man realises he will never change the world. The world is what it is and, though we might measure our own failures by the plight of those closest to us and seek to intervene should a loved one fall by the wayside, we no longer seek to act for the sake of caring. There are statistics everywhere and, inevitably, a certain number of people are going to end up becoming victims, regardless of how well the younger generations are educated in folly, or indeed what dose of moral character we try to inject into the sentiments of those who become the abusers. The latter are a statistic too and, even if we toned the quality of our nurturing to a level of unmatched mastery, there would still be those who failed or refused to blend with progress and insisted on grasping at every opportunity to abuse and drag down those who show fragility of any kind. The reasons for such behaviour are their own; the consequences are statistics.
Suddenly, however, Vince felt like he had a vested interest in paying attention to this unfortunate. Was he not looking to interfere in the existence of those no longer a part of his life? Doing so demanded becoming a part of the fabric in some way, even if it was one that remained in the shadows. Just as he had when conversing with the young lad who had sold him weed on the Lake Estate and when he had picked Clive’s brains about the Elcott gang. A surreptitious presence poised for a chance intervention.
The girl kept her chin up, still showcasing the poise of self-esteem though otherwise her appearance alluded to, not so much the ghosts of sunken dreams, but the relegating of them to the status of myth. Much like Aston Villa’s footballing credentials.
Knowing the exploitative nature of the city streets as he did, even at an amateur level, Vince knew without any kind of insight whatsoever that her life was not a pleasant one. Becoming a victim through misfortune was one thing, but you stood no chance if you looked like one from the start. It came as no surprise when her path led to the rundown flats he had been keeping an eye on and his attention would be unwavering until she emerged again. Remembering what Fairclough was like made him pity anyone who came across him as an adult, especially those of the opposite sex. Vince was firmly of the belief that children – and teenagers especially – know and understand each other more than adults ever can. The years when our behaviour is largely unconstrained by the boundaries of law are when we show our true colours; when the factors that compel us to either take advantage of a situation, or act with constraint and compassion, belong to the very core of our character. Once the restrictions of the adult world come into place, the liberties we choose to take are inevitably filtered by consequence and so the miscreants have no choice but to begin the process of diluting their own true selves in turn. Their natures did not really change, only their behaviours, unless their wits happen to be completely oblivious to the certainty that carrying on in the same manner will see them perish. Some would find this more difficult than others, however, and Vince had been trying to imagine how a person of Fairclough’s temperament went about gaining some form of social acceptance.
Not too well if the reaction of the girl who had disappeared through his front door was anything to go by – for, though still lacking categorical evidence, Vince had pretty much concluded that was where he resided.
He had timed her stay as being almost ten minutes exactly and her exit was a frantic affair. She burst through the door and down the stairs before breaking into a hurried walk that struggled not to turn into a run. Keeping this up for about twenty yards, at the same time as darting glances back at the door to check she was not being followed and adjusting her bra strap, then settling into a swift walk only and putting her hand to her mouth, giving away the fact that she was trying to keep in tears. Vince didn’t suppose she had been in there long enough for full scale abuse but was certain she must have been the target of some kind of inappropriate advance or attempted assault.
As she passed by his car, although on the other side of the road this time, Vince made sure he did not look like he was studying her and instead cast his gaze back to the abode from which she came. There was no doubt about it, a slight gap in the curtain nets that had not been there before. A pair of eyes were peeping after the young lady, their brief lookout upon the outside world providing him with what he was sure was his first sighting of Fairclough since leaving school.
That should have been enough to last a lifetime, but Vince had become hostile to sharing his existence with such a creature, no matter how remotely. Perhaps a man who makes preying on others both his hobby and his business is naturally cautious and so it would not quite be accurate to describe him as an unwitting target. One thing was for sure, however, Vince would be as good as forgotten to Fairclough. Chances are the pimp would not even recognise him and certainly fail to acknowledge any kind of bad blood; not when he was the kind of person to have bad blood with the entire human race. A person who maintains a habit of spitting in the back of people’s hair whenever he thinks he can get away with it does not remember how many people he has crossed over the course of a year, let alone a lifetime.
But in spite of this deduction, as he thought on what was supposed to be a lone vigil and personal project, he was hit by a sudden urge to speak to the girl he had just seen fleeing. It was not that he thought he should crave information beyond what he was capable of digging up himself, or that he was less weary than he should be about becoming a familiar face to those involved with his list items. His initial plans were to remain aloof throughout in fact, but over the last two months he had also become pliant of spontaneity and reading a situation as it is presented, rather than trying to force the issue. By using every piece of information possible he had been able to achieve unexpected results, compiling the beginnings of his own mental atlas as to how the criminal fraternity were manifesting. If there were details to be preened from a disenchanted hooker then why should he avoid an opportunity to establish more of a bigger picture?
Unfortunately he thought on the matter too long and, once he had decided there was no time like the present – even though it was hardly the red-light district’s peak hours – he realised that he had not actually clocked the direction in which the girl had fled. Regardless of being able to put the pedal to the metal, his choice of direction did not prove fruitful. The girl could not have gone far and yet he could not see her. Maybe she was already indoors somewhere or in another vehicle, but the upshot was that the chance was missed.
He would have to wait for such an insight, or else step out and get one himself.
Vince had left the scene only temporarily to fuel up on nourishment and to answer the call of nature. As far as he had seen there had been no further activity going to or coming from the flats. Even as the street lights came on and darkness descended there were no more women of the night arriving for instruction or anything else. Though he was surprised by this, Vince had to accept that he had no idea how pimps ran their services or how extensive Fairclough’s operations were anyway.
It was time to leave and return the next day for an actual sighting. Surely the bastard would have to step out of his door sometime but, wavering in his plans, Vince found he could not draw himself away. Maybe the missed opportunity of letting the ruffled pair of high heels go was nagging at him, like a successful bet a gambler has neglected to place. Or it might just be, having waited there all day to unearth almost no details whatsoever, that boredom had replaced whatever apprehension there had been to start with. In truth there had not been much of that anyway; still being completely laid back about his own motivations, Vince felt no expectation to do anything and there was no pressure to decide until a chance happened to come around.
He was lingering just because he felt like doing something; all that was left was to figure out exactly what.
Deciding that his inquisitiveness had done with patience, Vince got out of the car and made his way towards the flats, though still having no plan at all. Once heading that way, there were no alternative destinations unless he wanted to climb up the grassy verges to the train track and top himself as some did; but Rabies Dave hadn’t been tempted yet so why should he? It would be a dire state of affairs if the poorest excuse for a human being he had ever met still had more reason to live than him.
Once standing at the foot of the stairs to what he suspected was Fairclough’s door, Vince resisted a temptation to just knock on and beat the crap out of him. Since recovering from the incident in the pub he had felt a growing desire to use his fists on someone, but so far his schemes had been pursued with a modicum of wit and so he remained resistant to changing his approach. Besides, he was still in disbelief to learn that his target actually made a living out of being a pimp and so could not help wonder if Fairclough’s grip on his surroundings was fragile. Whatever menace he presented to society, this cockroach was not fearless or tough. There was no way he was cut out for delivering tough justice if the customers ever turned fruity with the clientele, unless time had made a completely different animal of him.
Unconvinced by the idea of change as he was, Vince instead supposed that a web of deceit was to blame instead and had only to catch a flame to wither and vanish. Instead of approaching the door, he decided to make a search of the back of the property, where he discovered a bare patch of concrete that looked as if it might have been designed for laundry but, no doubt because of vandalism, no longer offered the facility. As if Fairclough’s misdeeds were not enough, failing to take pride in the upkeep of a perfectly good washing line really took the biscuit.
He spent a few minutes mulling over whether to throw something up at the back window or else to knock on the door after all and pretend to be from the council in order to discuss the washing line. Concluding that the latter would be more fun, partly because the sounds coming out of the open back window made it clear that Fairclough was watching hardcore porn and he would likely be caught with his pants down, Vince retraced his steps a few paces but ended up stopping dead in his tracks.
Vince had not heard his approach, but there was a man standing at the bottom of the steps. A rather large man to be precise; both tall and broad shouldered. Vince’s first instinct was that he had been seen and that his stepping back into the shadows had come too late. In uneasiness he waited to see what encounter might transpire, knowing that he would be cornered and probably no match for whoever had arrived. Criminals attracted each other and so he might have been coming face to face with a violent bully, but that didn’t happen. Fortunately the only footsteps he then heard, though light taps for such a big man, were heard moving up the stairs before there followed quite a distinctive knock at the door: two raps of the knuckle and one loud thump.
Having been lucky, Vince then had his ears pricked for what exchange might occur, although Fairclough took such a ridiculous amount of time to answer the door that he did wonder if some lame attempt at ignoring the knocker was underway. Lame because of the cries of ecstasy that had been coming out of the window beforehand; these were turned off within a couple of seconds of interruption but it still took a long while for the scurrying that Vince could then clearly hear to result in the front door opening.
‘About time,’ was the response from outside, a deep voice that immediately became muffled allowing Vince to ascertain that the guest had stepped inside immediately without invite – or indeed resistance. Because of the open window he could still hear the discourse, however, providing no trains were speeding passed.
‘I was about to smash the door down,’ the voice continued, but sounding more matter-of-fact than irritated. Vince did not have to see the exchange to know who was calling the shots.
‘I heard your knock,’ came the reply and, though its tone was gruffer than the weasel voice he could remember, there came a flashback to the days when hearing those vocal chords meant watching your back; if just to avoid the indignity of having human slobber drying out on your hair or coat.
‘What’s the point in going to the trouble if you’re going to be jacking off every time someone comes?’ the voice asked, adding, ‘Your debtors find you and you’d have no chance to jump out of the back window anyway.’
‘I was just washing my hands.’
‘Yeah, right! I don’t want to know. What I do want though, Cloughy, is an explanation – and it better be a good one.’
‘W–What?… I’ve done all Ashton asked for.’
‘I’m not talking about that,’ the voice replied. ‘I’m talking about the rozzers.’
‘The cops? What, I haven’t…’
‘We knew about your history of course, but allowing you to step into this little project was done with the assurance that there was no heat on you.’
‘I swear! No one knows I’m here,’ Fairclough replied. ‘All bills are handled under a phoney name, it’s been seen to. I keep a low profile.’
‘Is that right? So you wouldn’t know anything about helping to move some missing jewellery that’s worth a pretty penny then?’
‘Missing jewellery? No, I run the girls, I don’t need to thieve.’
‘Nothing about the Hatton Garden heist then?’
‘That thing in London? How…?’
‘Oh, don’t worry! I know perfectly well your ball-sack brain isn’t capable of masturbating such a feat of criminal genius into existence. But most of that shit ain’t been found, so I hear. No doubt the big purses are haggling for its valuables all over the country, or even the world, even while those behind it rot away in a prison cell.’
‘That’s their loss.’
‘I wouldn’t be so magnanimous if I was you. When you’ve got Ashton’s standing, a lot of information tends to flow your way. Now answer me straight; last summer, were you or were you not acting as go between for someone looking to move some of these stolen goods?’
‘Jewellery? Geko, I know nothing about antiques and shit!’
‘That’s not what I asked you. Were you, or were you not, involved as a go-between?’
‘No! Alright?’ Fairclough insisted, his voice rising a notch in the process. ‘You want to hear it straight? I ain’t got nothing to do with that stuff, man!’ Then adding, ‘I wish I had though; I hear that stuff’s worth millions – but I don’t have those kind of connections.’
‘You know! Big wigs and money men; it’s absurd.’
‘The usual suspects you mean?’
‘And yet, it was a bunch of old guys who did the heist. No one saw them coming.’
‘So a big hurrah to them. I’ve told you straight…’
‘Alright, alright!’ the man called Geko cut in, sounding like he was willing to accept the information. ‘That may be,’ he went on, ‘but I have it on good authority that the cops have a list of four potential suspects, who they were keen to keep their eyes on in relation to a failed attempt at cashing in on some of these rare antiques… artefacts, or whatever.’
‘And I’m one of them?’
‘You catch on fast.’
‘That’s ridiculous! The only reason they put my name down is because they don’t know where I am. They’re obsessed with keeping an eye on me that’s all – I just got fed up with it. As soon as I found a way of laying low they probably started putting me down as a suspect for every unsolved case they’ve got going, but they’re singing out of their arses. Where do you get this anyway?’
‘That’s my business,’ Geko replied. ‘But let me just label this once Cloughy,’ (at this point Vince felt he could picture the big man raising a finger and locking gazes with the man he was threatening) ‘I only need to mention this offhand to Ashton and he’ll have your worthless behind kicked off this project in a heartbeat. What’s more, it will probably be me doing the kicking.’
‘But it’s crap, Geko!’
‘So you tell me. But bear this in mind, I keep this to myself for no other reason than your word, even though I know nothing of its quality. If I find you’re lying and this brings any needless heat our way, you’ll be making an enemy of me as well as Ashton.’
‘There’s no heat coming, Geko. Don’t worry about it.’
‘You’d better be right, or the sound of my knock will be even less pleasant next time. Did you take care of that other thing?’
‘Yeah, man! Any of the girls hear the name Wordsworth they feed the details right to me.’
‘Damn right! Oh, and Cloughy?’ Geko added, his voice becoming clearer and revealing to Vince that he was on his way back outside.
‘If you’re going to be keeping it so fucking warm in here try having a bath every now and then. You smell like donkey’s piss.’
After departing with that insult, Geko’s feet could be heard tapping their way down the steps, more purposefully this time, suggesting there were more important tasks to accomplish than reading the riot act to Bristol’s pongiest pimp.
Vince stayed in the shadows, but sneaked a peek of the man called Geko just before he disappeared from view. Seeing Fairclough’s guest walk passed his own car further emphasised the size of the man; Vince had certainly not been suffering from an overactive imagination back when he thought he might have been spotted. There was clear relief in that he had avoided any kind of meeting, but otherwise he had stayed calm when listening to the conversation and wasted no time coming out of hiding on hearing a car engine start and quickly fade away.
Taking a look up at the front door, Vince was then able to see the obscured outline of Fairclough against its top half, which was frosted glass. The figure lingered awhile, clearly contemplating its last visitor and all the dangers that working for his employers presented. The way he stood there caused Vince to speculate that he had not been entirely honest with his responses – obviously not with the Hatton Garden heist query – but there were surely misdeeds that could yet catch up with them and, therefore, his employers. His memory was of someone who made enemies easily but this Geko – or Ashton for that matter – did not benefit from five years of schooling with the man to understand just how much of a liability he was. The imposing visitor had sounded switched on and professional – if that was the right word – leaving Vince to speculate over what poor advice they had received to even consider putting Fairclough in charge of anything.
Once the frosted human outline had retreated, Vince made his way back to the driver’s seat of his car. There was much to think on and so he was not tempted to dismiss the conversation he had overheard as being nothing to do with him, or return to one of his preconceived approaches. Besides, unless there was another Wordsworth bobbing around, he had been named.
So the little wind up he had played with Tonk had rocked the boat a little more than he had expected. Rather than there being a few local thugs who had been given the name to hunt down back on the lad’s estate, as Vince had imagined, it turned out that feelers had been put out even beyond Fishponds itself. If a minor pimp operation that could only have been loosely connected to the Ashton kingdom he kept hearing about, was being asked about Wordsworth, then it was reasonable to assume that every other pimp and drug dealer they had connections with now also knew the name. It was a good thing that he had not used it more often; it had been a joke name, not a pseudonym, thought up so that a few paranoid criminals might spend a bit of time jumping at shadows. But now that this had been achieved stunningly, the temptation was there to see how far the wind up could stretch and – who knows? – maybe around Fairclough’s neck.
Why toil and plot when there were numpties cueing up to unwittingly do the work for you? If Geko’s warnings were anything to go by, the question at stake appeared to be one of reputation. Perhaps time would see to Fairclough’s fate in that respect anyway, but that did nothing to sway Vince’s intent at being the one to set the noose.
There was a play to make now. It did not have to be forced, only executed to precision.
They told her Britney would be a terrific name for exciting the clients and she had fallen for it. She had fallen for a lot of things and was still failing to keep up with their attempts to manipulate her. ‘Britney’ did excite the clients alright, but it also gave the false impression that she was younger than her twenty-one years. Sheryl – her real name – was aware she could still pass for seventeen and being named after a famous teenage star further hinted that this fantasy might be real. While, if any of them were genuine fans of the star’s career, they might even appreciate the fact that Britney Spears was not super famous until 1998 and so, if her own mother was among the legions of fans who went through a spate of naming their children after the star, then that would make her no more than 18 years old. Sly bastards the lot of them – but all she had done was nodded. Consequently, the result was inevitable; she was destined for clients with an underage fetish. For leering perverts’ amusements when they didn’t have their binoculars pointed at school playgrounds.
Like the drugs and the initial initiation into prostitution, she had fallen for this role without a fight, failing to understand how she was being used until she was already compliant. Obviously there had been well-practiced methods put in place, but the experience had proven a real wake-up call in highlighting the level of stupidity she was capable of. Sheryl had never envisioned herself being naïve enough to end up in such a fate and now she had no idea how to get out as she spent her evenings hanging around the Oldgate street corners waiting for passing trade.
Say ‘yes’ just once, she had told herself, all for a different kind of murky liquid. An altogether more desirable kind you’d pump straight into your veins rather than spattering it over your face and wiping it off with a towel. The kind of liquid she would be at one with, rather than host to, for a little while.
There had been a temporary shortage of cash and therefore of supply and so her provider had offered an alternative means of payment. His wasn’t the sleazy way, he had told her. No, he only worked favours for a few high class clients. All arranged with prior agreement and carried out casually; no pressure. Just turn up to a drinks night and see how you feel; pop next door to the orgy room and see how it goes. If you’re in the mood and the client’s interested why not take a bit of cash in the process? She had thought hard about that first time but had gone through with it and then it had seemed easier; agreeable even, when all she needed was more smack.
It wasn’t cheap street work at first. The day after the first night, one of the other girls had asked her how she found the footballer. Sheryl didn’t know what that meant until a week later when she had recognised the man on the back of a local newspaper wearing a blue shirt. His fame had been as lost on her as his loins, but she had only done it for the money. It was only temporary until she got her finances sorted, or else got round to scaling down her addiction. The real problems began when Derek had told her that they had enough girls for the night but suggested a house visit instead. After calming her initial apprehension by insisting it was a client he knew just as well as any other, she had gone through with it, but then the side-lining had become a regular thing until the day that Derek had none of that left either and suggested she go and stand on a street corner. Just for a couple of nights he had said and, when she had replied with something about the lifestyles of cheap hookers, he had assured her she had gotten completely the wrong idea.
I wouldn’t do that to you, kiddo! It’s all part of the same set up; a high class clientele. It’s just some of them prefer something a little more down to earth sometimes. A pretty girl in the privacy of their own car rather than in some lock-in where everyone can see them. You’ll probably prefer it this way – besides, you’ll have a heavy out their protecting you. We’re not some cheap whorehouse, baby, this is the best people are paying for.
Once again she’d gone ahead, more tentatively this time but still trusting Derek. He had been as good as his word so far and at first the clients had seemed as he said. Nothing weird and no one unhinged, had been the line she had drawn in the sand. Then came the move to Oldgate. The original pimp she had been assigned to had been moved on. No one knew why or where to, except it was understood that he was no longer in Bristol anymore.
On taking up a new location, Sheryl had responded by running back to Derek and begging to be brought back indoors somewhere, telling him that the new pimp was virtually non-existent in the streets and the girls were unprotected. In response, in addition to breaking it to her that the best clientele liked to try out new girls and so there was nothing better for her, the smooth operator had sworn that the deal was still the same regardless of whether the new pimp actually showed his face at all.
They all work differently, baby. Don’t worry about it. That was just Scott’s way; this new guy comes recommended from on high, he probably has even more connections. Just do it for a couple of weeks and you’ll realise there’s nothing to worry about.
Again she had given in, but was now firmly aware that it was a bad decision. Derek was no longer answering her calls and, as well as being virtually non-existent on the street, this guy Cloughy was unnerving. On their last meeting – the first alone together – he had asked for a favour on the ruse that he was checking something out for a very picky client. Continuing with the habit of not realising she was being manipulated until she was already in the undertaking, Sheryl had allowed him to strap a black blow-up doll to her midriff and get her to crawl around on all fours. At least she could hold on to the fact that she had brought the humiliation to an end on that occasion by getting up and running out, throwing her dress on as she escaped through the door. She did not wait to find out exactly what he wanted her to do with the shrimp he had just taken out of the freezer.
Despite the indignity of the whole meeting, the worse thing about it was not prancing about on her knees attached to a blow-up doll, but the look on Cloughy’s face as he watched. She had the distinct feeling that he was a real creep and that he was gearing up for some weirdo pass at her, regardless of how much Derek insisted he was a genuine part of operations.
Afterwards she received a text saying, ‘What you run away for? That was perfect; just what he wants. Easy gig, I’ll tell you more next week.’
She had heard of fetishes of course and said nothing to the other girls, but was beginning to suspect she was being played and that Cloughy wanted her for his own amusement. If only she knew the others better then she could pick their brains, but they only shrugged if she asked them a question and were completely disinterested in who she was.
The knowledge that she had to stop this was now unclouded in her mind and she was determined to be manipulated into no further schemes. Yet, she still stepped out onto Oldgate the next evening because she was short of alternatives. It was just easier to do one more night; get one more bundle of cash before figuring out the way ahead and not sell herself anymore.
As for the heroin addiction, though her declining funds meant she was getting less and less when she needed more and more, she had no clue how to even start getting off that stuff.
One more evening though. That was the plan.
When a long-term vision was lacking, stick to the moment and hope that no more perverts come along.
The night started off slow; the other girls standing around making jokes she was not included in, occasionally looking up to tease some bashful passer-by. Then, in the space of a few minutes, all of them were picked up almost as if someone had rung a bell for magic hour to begin. Left all alone, that sense of unease returned and Sheryl considered disappearing somewhere until one of the girls should return, but it was then that the Ford Focus pulled up.
‘Hey!’ the man called to her as if they were familiar in some way, but she didn’t recognise him. ‘You got a few minutes?’ he then asked.
‘You in a rush or something?’ she replied, leaning in to take a look at the dark-haired figure behind the wheel. He didn’t look like any of her typical clients, who she usually categorised under the three headings of smugness, coolness and shiftiness, but this one was none of those. His tone was of someone enquiring after information rather than looking for satisfaction – though the swollen nose did warn that he might have a violent nature.
‘It’s not what you think, I just want to talk,’ he replied.
‘Go call a therapist,’ she said, always taking as rude an approach as she could to anything even slightly out of the ordinary, but then he gave her a context.
‘I saw you coming out of Fairclough’s place the other day,’ he told her. ‘Tried to speak to you then but you got out of there quickly.’
That caused her to pause, recalling what she must have looked like and, though she had denied it to herself, knowing that she had been fighting back tears at the time.
‘Why do you care about him? Are you a cop?’ she asked. His response was to smile; quite a child-like grin even though she thought him likely turned thirty.
‘No,’ he replied. ‘Driving this old thing?’
‘How did you get that nose like that?’
‘A skinhead nutted me in a bar a week ago. Look if you’re worried about me we can meet in a public place sometime, but it means you having to put up with Rabies Dave till then.’
‘Put up with…?’
‘Oh, yeah! Didn’t you know that’s his nickname? Take it from me, he isn’t someone you want to trust your well-being to.’
Don’t be manipulated, she had told herself. Don’t fall for what sounds reasonable. But it was too much of a temptation to find out what he wanted; the truth was, that even if he was nothing more than another pimp trying to pry her away from Cloughy, then she would probably take him up on the offer.
‘So you want to talk or what? Naturally I’ll pay you for your time.’
The thought of money must have tipped the scales. Sheryl wasted no time haggling, deciding to risk making the same mistake again and again after all and getting in the car.
The man said he would just drive a couple of streets away and park up somewhere, then suggested that the car park of a supermarket might be an ideal place when they sighted one just off the main road. Sheryl sat and waited, trying not to give anything away or jump to the drastic conclusion that this was a nice man without any ulterior motive – other than what he had hinted about her pimp.
‘Here,’ he said, reaching into his pocket as soon as they had pulled up, ‘I don’t know how much you earn but there’s £100. What do I call you by the way?’
‘Call me Britney. It’s quite discreet here,’ she found herself saying, accepting what would have been the easiest £100 she had ever earned if this man genuinely didn’t want anything other than a conversation. ‘Do you want me to–’
‘No, it’s fine. Honestly – though please don’t take offence from that; you look, erm…’
‘So you want to talk about… what did you call him?’ she asked, sparing him the trouble of having to find an appropriate complimentary word.
‘That’s old Rabies Dave,’ he replied. ‘Is that guy seriously your… pimp?’
Sheryl nodded, finding no words of explanation.
‘How does that happen?’ he asked. ‘Does the guy have standing?’
‘Not that I know of,’ she replied, ‘but the girls here do as they’re told.’
‘Don’t they have any choice?’
‘Look, I haven’t been here too long,’ she told him. ‘So I don’t know the circumstances, but from what I have heard he replaced someone a few months ago and inherited whatever was already in place. He isn’t the brains of the operation?’
‘Who is the brains?’
‘You want to ask about other people now? I got in the car because you wanted to talk about Cloughy.’
‘No, actually I was just letting my curiosity run away with me. It’s hard to imagine anyone putting their trust in him. So what was that all about outside his place the other morning?’
Sheryl hesitated before replying, but was unable to hold back too long from the possibility of finding an unlikely ally against the loathsome creep.
‘He’s a pervert!’ she spat out. ‘There’s a rumour that he likes the underage girls. I think I’ve got his attention because of my figure.’
‘Didn’t seem like you were in there that long. Did he assault you?’
‘No, I got out of there before he was about to make some sick pass at me – but he did try to stop me. I think he was just toying. He knows that I have no one else to report to so will have to go back.’
‘Well, there is one solution.’
‘I know! That’s my business.’
‘I don’t mean that – no one works for fun. I mean Wordsworth.’
Hearing him allude to the strange request that had come down from Cloughy caused her to turn and regard him closely for the first time.
‘I’m aware you’ve been asking round about him. Why not spread the rumour that Cloughy is this Wordsworth?’
‘Isn’t that a bit desperate,’ she replied, rolling her eyes. ‘Not to mention far-fetched; whoever’s looking for this guy will see right through it.’
‘Because they must know something about who this Wordsworth is. He might be black or northern; how can we know that Cloughy fits the description.’
‘I know that all they know about this Wordsworth is that he’s a white guy with a baseball bat.’
‘And how’s that?’
‘Because he’s me.’
‘Or to put it more clearly, he’s a figment of my imagination. A joke name I used as a distraction; turns out some big drug dealers decided to take it seriously. But they’re chasing a shadow; I don’t go by the name and I’m not a rival. I’ve nothing to do with anything in fact.’
‘So why are you chasing Cloughy?’
‘I owe him one.’
‘For the nose?’
‘No,’ he replied, smiling that innocent grin again that she couldn’t help but enjoy seeing – there seemed genuine humour on his features and she had forgotten that smiles didn’t have to be deceiving. ‘For something years back,’ he explained, ‘but I doubt the cretin will even recognise me now.’
The two of them were silent for a time, allowing the information to sink in. It was clear he was waiting for some kind of response from her but she still sensed nothing more than plain courtesy in his manner. His answers had been so forthright that an alternative agenda felt as non-existent as this rival drug lord. He was not even compelling her to do anything as far as she could tell, other than making a suggestion, which he could still have made while having his way with her for £100. Of course she had been specifically asked to report everything about Wordsworth but, as well as not having taken those orders very seriously, just knowing that this man had a beef with Cloughy meant that she had no interest in giving him away.
‘This is all you’re here for then,’ she said at last, ‘to try and get Cloughy?’
‘That’s right. Seeing you the other morning made me wonder if the feeling was mutual. I thought maybe we could help his employers to put two and two together and make five. So, are you interested?’
Sheryl shook her head.
‘No,’ she answered him. ‘It would be daft to put my name in the mix of a load of rumours all going back and forth. Five might be a bad number to land on even if they fall for it. But you could do it.’
‘I don’t have anyone’s ear,’ he replied. ‘Don’t worry though, I’ll find a way to get rid of Fairclough myself.’
‘What I mean is,’ she went on, ‘you could drop the hint to one of the other girls. Easily, in fact – just be a customer.’
‘Oh, I couldn’t…’
‘What? Are you gay?’
‘No, but I’ve never paid for it before.’
‘So just ask for something simple. Don’t worry, they’re a bit cliquey but the other girls are pretty careful. None of them have rabies anyway.’
He looked like he was trying to find a reason to protest, but Sheryl thought she saw the penny drop that her idea was actually better than his.
‘What are you; a breast man?’
‘What do you like? Blondes? Redheads?’
‘I’ve a thing for girls who play the violin; you got any of them?’
‘If you’re a breast man wait for the redhead to turn up; we don’t call her the valley girl for her Welsh accent. If you like big luscious lips then wait for the blonde perm. The brunettes are the more experienced ones if that’s your thing, but then maybe they’ll be less gullible, who knows?’
Her speech had left him open-mouthed but, after a minute of struggling for an alternative, he had given up and started the engine in order to drive her back. It was quite clear from his uncertainty that he was as good as his word and not in the habit of paying for favours from women who worked the streets. This caused her to doubt whether he would go through with it, but also endeared him to her. He might have been playing some strange game, but he was a different animal to all the other men in her life, that was for sure.
As he dropped her off she wished him good luck and had to resist asking what his name was. She didn’t want to give him the impression that she might blab. If there was a chance that he was going to do something about Cloughy then she would stand aside and give him every courtesy.
Every other Monday afternoon saw Ashton gather with his heavies in order to share out a fortnight’s profits; paying his closest associates and taking his own slice of the pie, some of which made its way to London via M4 services meet-ups that saw their products restocked, but most of it went into his own money laundering schemes.
It was a rare turn of events to see anything interrupt the process, but a text that turned up on Geko’s phone caused a stir when he read it out as ‘Possible Wordsworth lead, but can’t speak to Cloughy’.
After that Geko had moved off to one corner of the room to call for an explanation, causing Wez and Dez to space out over the percentages they were doing a bad job of pretending to help Ashton calculate – now that they were left without a fellow employee to nod in agreement with.
‘I wouldn’t ask this without good reason, Gav,’ Geko said, on returning to the centre of the room, ‘but the recommendation you got for Cloughy, was that kosher?’
‘It was Derek’s judgement,’ Ashton replied. ‘He runs all girls just as I run the product. He trusts my word on dealers, I trust his on pimps.’
‘But I know one of his girls,’ Geko continued. ‘According to her, one of the clients has named Cloughy as none other than Wordsworth.’
Ashton’s hands paused over the money he was counting. He was not a man prone to great showings of fury, but those who had come to live under the shadow of his reputation knew that the brooding look that received this information was one that had painful consequences written there for some unfortunate soul.
‘You’ve met this guy,’ Ashton replied, sitting back to indicate he was in no rush to reach the end of this conversation. ‘What do you make of him?’
‘I wouldn’t trust him to look after my favourite turd. That’s why I’ve been showing my face so he knows I’ve got half an eye on him.’
‘Let’s go pound on the bastard then,’ Wez offered.
‘The man’s a snivelling coward,’ Geko replied. ‘Maybe he could have attacked Tonk but I can’t imagine him moving that far from his hard drive’s porn collection. He’s been laying low from debt collectors and hardly even steps out the front door.’
‘So you think it’s bullshit?’
‘Hmm!’ Geko, pausing in his response, started to crack his knuckles as he weighed up all the factors involved. ‘There was a Ford Focus outside of his place the other day. Maybe we should put Derek on the spot.’
‘No,’ Ashton had already made up his mind. ‘We bypass him. Send him a message that we won’t put up with anymore useless runts being brought into the fold.’
‘You think this could be Wordsworth?’
‘No. That’s a cover name anyway. Wordsworth is a joke; this Cloughy might be in on it… but that doesn’t matter.’
‘What does?’ Dez asked.
‘What matters is what message we send.’
Anticipation is the sweet toxin that Fairclough couldn’t get enough of. He was grateful for the drugs that meant some of the local talent ended up having to work for him, but he had rarely tried them himself. No, his addiction was for the build up to the perfect execution: the execution of sexual will.
Since the casual attempt at getting some kicks out of the new girl, he had been scouring his library of website sources for anyone who looked similar to his Britney. Not being the most inventive, having access to a whole plethora of indignities that a woman could be used for served to shape his own imaginings of what would take place between them the next time he could lure her to his flat. The first time had been a test; put her on the spot and see how long it took her to break. How strong was the character he had to mould to suit his pleasure? The meeting had given him his answer. Britney was going to be pretty resistant, but that only increased his anticipation more. He knew that she was desperate and he had ways of holding back what she needed.
Until then, he would get his kicks by imagining the power play and, if you looked hard enough, it was usually possible to find visual stimulation, tormenting his own ardour by seeing what was going on inside his head made live on the screen. His excitement when it finally came to reaching out and touching that fantasy served as a reward for all the agony of lust that is man’s natural state.
Fairclough needed no justification for how he chose to live his life. In his mind, society was nothing more than an elaborate puzzle, within which men had to figure out the best means of satiating their desires. If the majority sought to do so more cautiously or patronisingly than him that was their loss; his way was to relish every moment of the hunt.
Unfortunately circumstance had been raining on his parade for a while. His ability to worm his way out of bad finances had waned since he made the mistake of spitting on the back of a police officer’s helmet. He had avoided prison, but scrutiny had turned his way and he was forced to discard the talent he had doing his bidding, as well as completing a whole load of mundane chores like signing on the dole and attending workplace training.
Being a schooled member of the starship sexual enterprise had been his saving grace, however. He knew the sex secrets of some influential folk and had been able to work one of them to his favour, laying a subtle but, he thought, reasonable bribe to get himself a new abode where the debt collectors had no trace of him, as well as being able to inherit a new slice of talent. He had pledged serious professionalism as part of the deal and the girls were not really his type anyway. That was until Britney turned up and looked like being the answer to all his one-handed prayers. Sure he had promised to keep them as content as possible, but this Britney had vulnerability written all over her features. He had come across her type before; friendless yet trusting, with nowhere to turn.
Looking forward to making merry once more in a manner that misfortune had robbed him of, Fairclough was quite at ease with himself when the knock at the door came.
Two knuckle raps and a thump caused him to sit bolt upright, like a collie to a whistle. It was Geko again he knew; what else could that ogre want of him? Fairclough had expected a few more weeks to pass before having to hold his nerve under that stare again and felt a sinking feeling in his stomach in knowing that it could not be for a good reason.
Flicking off his laptop screen, he stood up and looked back and forth from the door to the back window. He was fortunate not to have his pants round his ankles this time and so had time to think, being tempted to make a run for it towards the railway bridge, but he kept his nerve. Everything was just falling back into place and he could not believe that it would collapse again so suddenly for no apparent reason.
Opening the door, Fairclough hung back, expecting Geko to enter immediately. To his surprise, as the door swung open, he realised there was no one standing there and so stepped forward confused.
The street was never very well lit, but even in the daylight he would probably not have seen the hand that then shot forward, fixing his throat in a vice-like grip and yanking him out into the cold night air. It was Geko alright and deciding not to jump out of the back window had been a bad call. Dangling like a puppet, Fairclough gasped for a breath of fresh air while failing to figure out exactly how he was descending the stairs, except he was aware that two additional hands were holding his arms behind his back and so knew – as if Geko needed any help – that the big man was not alone.
This was bad. Too brutal and decisive to dismiss as intimidation, he wanted only to profess his innocence and have a chance to answer to what they thought he had done; but he could not even breathe, not until he landed in the boot of a car and plunged into darkness.
‘What? What have I done?’ Fairclough cried out as muscular arms dragged him out into the open, caring not that his voice sounded a whimpering tone more effeminate than any of the teenagers he had abused.
They didn’t answer with words, but instead with a fist rammed into his back. Debilitating pain shot through his entire body, causing him to open his mouth wide and gasp for the air that would not come. Torn between not wanting to move, for doubting his ribs would follow, and longing to cry out for mercy, Fairclough closed his eyes tight in anticipation of the next blow, but the attack had paused.
His kidnappers were still there though; they were waiting for him now. But for an explanation or to declare judgement? It was hard to be optimistic for the former.
Feeling the sensation of grass on the back of his neck, Fairclough thought that he was in a park somewhere but, when able to open his eyes, saw only four figures towering over him so had no way of knowing where he was. His first attempt to form words came out as a groan and he was beaten to it when one of the men crouched down so his features could be made out. The face that regarded him sported a goatee and a short head of hair that was too slick to bother spitting on.
‘You know who I am?’ the man asked. Fairclough had never seen him before but, knowing who Geko was, couldn’t help but jump on the worst possible speculation.
‘You’re Ashton,’ he managed, through gritted teeth.
‘That’s right! Now tell me who Wordsworth is.’
‘What? I’ve no idea.’
‘Oh! I think you do, Fairclough. I think you’re in league with him. Tell us who he is and we’ll make it quick. Otherwise we’re going to beat it out of you.’
‘I don’t know anything about it, other than what Geko asked of me. I swear on–’
But he didn’t get a chance to think of who to swear on. Certainly not his mother; she was a fat old hag dying of lung cancer somewhere. Maybe his sister; but then he had sullied that relationship that time he had come home drunk after hearing about how incest was in all of Shakespeare’s plays.
There was nothing, only pain.
Whether it was their fists or boots that shook his body from head to toe and caused his eyes to water and tear, he had nothing to offer in return. To think that something he was completely innocent of would creep up and obliterate him. Despite all he had done, such a fate felt cruel and he so wanted to live to see another morning wood.
Fairclough had never thought much on whether there might be an afterlife or what it might entail, but that did not mean he was too ignorant to recognise the fires of hell when he saw them. He was not much for symbolism either so did not know what to make of the lonesome figure that stood in front of the flames, neither beckoning him from a distance nor coming out to meet him.
Then again, the fire was only visible through the legs of one of the men who had been battering him. A part of him was still in the real world, even if it was so far gone that the judgement of his soul was already taking place.
The day after Easter Monday and Vince was driving through the centre of Bristol after a visit to the dentist. Though there had been no Easter eggs in his diet this year, he had still wondered if there might be some unwanted bill on the horizon when the dentist broke it to him that he needed another root canal. It was just like life to conspire of different ways to drain his finances and, considering this was the first time in years he actually had some money in his account thanks to simple living, he had been gritting his teeth at the idea of a dentist drill carving its way into his bank vaults.
Astonishingly, all he got was compliments, however. Like a trooper he had been polishing his teeth well, getting into all the nooks and crannies and eradicating whatever filth threatened to linger and cause him issues. He was quite at ease, therefore, as he made his way home and, as there were a few days yet before he had to look at his list again, his mind was elsewhere.
A knock at the passenger seat window drew his mind out of reverie, however, and he turned to see none other than the lady of the night he knew as Britney staring at him – indeed, pointing to the door lock and being clear she wanted to get in.
Consenting to her request, though surprised by this development, Vince let her in and then, as the lights turned green, had no choice but to drive off before even asking what she wanted.
‘You need a lift somewhere?’ he asked, after having made his way through one of Bristol’s most difficult roundabouts.
‘I’ve been looking out for you,’ she said. ‘You’re going to have to ditch this car; everyone’s still mad about this Wordsworth and his Ford Focus. It’s not good for you.’
‘They know I’m in a Ford Focus?’
‘Don’t ask me how.’
‘Well, there’s too many of these cars about anyway. I’m not worried about that,’ he replied, wondering if there was maybe another reason for her seeking him out.
‘Got to hand it to you though,’ she said. ‘You pulled it off. Whatever he did to you, Cloughy paid for it.’
‘So you don’t have to worry about him now either,’ said Vince.
‘That’s right, we’ve all been taken away. Don’t know what happened to him exactly but more than one of the girls did this when I asked about him,’ Britney said, lifting her right hand up to her throat and miming the impression of a knife going across it.
Vince didn’t offer any reaction. He didn’t really care what the consequences were as long as the name was crossed off his list. If he ever had the misfortune of coming across Rabies Dave again then he might have to rethink his perspective, depending on what state he found him in, but he was able to live as if that might not ever happen. That was a good result.
For the first time since that night though, his mind flashed back to the scene and all that had happened. The pursuit of his list was a chore his mind was completely at one with but, just as when he had sent the message to Gavin Ashton via a dazed Tonk, an opportunistic urge had further complicated matters, for no other reason than because it could.
He had been there.
His watch on Fairclough’s place had continued in the evenings because, if nothing happened, he would have had to gain entrance and deal with the filth by his own hand. But the ruse, achieved with the help of Britney, had worked perfectly and he had followed Ashton’s BMW upon seeing the heavies bundle Fairclough into the boot. Trailing them out to Emersons Green, where they pulled up beside some farm fields neighbouring the M4 motorway, Vince should have then settled for watching the four heavies (one of whom he now recognised as Geko) giving the cockroach a good hiding. Instead he had spotted the chance to approach the BMW, seeing as the thugs had dragged Fairclough some distance away – probably so the noise of the motorway could drown out his screams.
What he had done then simply defied explanation or common sense. On finding that, as he suspected, Ashton (he supposed it was the drug lord) had not bothered to lock his car, Vince had taken a petrol canister out of his own car boot and some matches from under the dashboard, poured the contents all over the BMW and then struck a flame.
As the car sat there burning he had stepped in front of the new light source so that Ashton and his heavies would clearly see him standing there, staring in their direction. For a whole minute he must have stood as they looked on, no one moving.
There was no reason to have done that and he had yet to draw any conclusions.
Even so, he had hardly given the flames a second thought, even as he saw the explosion a couple of minutes later in his rear-view mirror. It didn’t make him feel any different. The only part of the whole Rabies Dave affair that stuck in his mind as being unlike him was when Britney’s perm-haired acquaintance had her head bobbing up and down between his own torso and his steering wheel.
That girl had enabled him to think outside of the box and now she was back in his car; Rabies Dave was ticked off his list and she was also responsible for his only slice of physical satisfaction since the last lacklustre lovemaking he and Laura had made – which had seemed strange at the time until her passionless core had produced the confession of Mr Lover Lover a week later.
Was there some undiscovered treasure of untapped charisma in the girl alongside him? It seemed a worthy question, but he dismissed it instantly for the perils of thinking too hard. A simple life was throwing him many advantages.
‘Why you working for them anyway?’ he asked her instead. ‘Drugs?’
‘My clients aren’t all like Cloughy,’ she said, but he could tell from the tone of her voice that she knew it was a weak response.
‘Sorry, that’s none of my business. Tell you what,’ he offered, ‘I promise never to ask again. You want to go and get something to eat?’
‘Aren’t you scared at all about this Wordsworth thing?’
‘It doesn’t concern me,’ he replied. ‘I’m not part of their world, I just bumped into it by accident. Let them sit in ignorance.’
‘And where will you be?’
‘Only time will tell. Right now I could do with a beer… and a flame-grilled steak. What do you say, Britney?’
‘My name’s Sheryl.’
‘Nice to meet you, Sheryl. I’m Vince.’
Launching his own personal investigation into the whereabouts of the first name on his list, Vince learns that Mike Fairclough is working as a pimp and surreptitiously asks an old friend to confirm his location. Though battered and bruised after a chance encounter with another foe, Vince sticks to his list and sets out to confirm a sighting. On seeing that Fairclough is a recluse, Vince is uncertain how to approach the challenge until he notices that one of the sex workers is disenchanted and might be able to help him lay a false trail. He wins her trust, but is surprised to discover that she has a better idea, which involves him getting his hands dirty in a way he had not expected. Plus, he learns that the city's most notorious drug gang are still on the hunt to find out who is behind his cover name but, rather than being scared, this only amuses him. Rabies Dave's Babes is part 3 of the 12-part novella series Chasing Cockroaches set to run throughout 2016.