Hell is Empty Teaser #2

dsc_0009-2008-03-04-at-16-43-50A stiff breeze, riddled with winter, tore through the exposed bones of the building. There were other giants rising in concert with this one. London, irked by the knowledge that it was a global shortarse, had decided to tilt for the heavens. Across the way the Splinter was nearing completion. Nearly 800 metres of glass and steel fitted together with the kind of top-level engineer-fu that ensured there were no visible joins. There seemed to be no window frames, just a uniform smoked-glass look throughout, as if it had been fashioned from one stupendous layer. It was beautiful and terrifying and it felt as though I could just reach out from where I was standing to touch its gleaming, polished shoulder. The summit of the Splinter would be a jagged thrust of reinforced glass. Something playful the architect had come up with, to offset the dreary pursuit of money that would go on in all the floors beneath it. He wanted to replicate the shattering of some boiled sweet or other that had caused him to lose a tooth. Work was ongoing; the building was due to open officially in the first quarter of the New Year.

I admired it for a while and then tried to imagine a struggle and a person being thrown over the edge. Was there any chance, I wondered, that the Skylark had finally lost one of these skirmishes and plummeted to his death instead of his intended target? I made a mental note to check the details of the final victim, thinking that whoever had been in charge of the investigation back then ought to have done so as a matter of course.

I got so high that I ran out of building. Steel rods reached up from concrete cores. A guy stood there, slouched against them, observing my trespass. My heart pounced but it was just a hi-vis gilet and a hard hat jammed on a strut. Christ it was cold. Wind buffeted the heights – it probably did so most of the time, no matter if it was completely still at street level. I was about to go – cursing myself for not rocking up in hat and gloves – when I saw light on the uppermost levels of the Splinter.

I might not have been so surprised at that of course, in this metropolis of megawattage, but for the way the light arrived, and the nature of it. It bloomed into being and was softer, a buttery light next to the harsh burn of the halogen. It flickered and leaned as it was moved across the floors. A security guard whose torch had let him down, relying on a candle? Highly unlikely. Kids then. BASE jump researchers. I kept my eyes on the flame. Now it ascended. When it had risen as far as it was able I thought I saw something just beyond its reach: the pale round of a face most likely, looking out, as I was, on the yawning muddle of roads and buildings that meant home. I fancied, with a chill of recognition, that he, or she, was looking straight at me, though surely I was concealed by the dark. It didn’t stop me from moving back into deeper shadow, or whomever it was from suddenly extinguishing the flame.

Advent Stories #4

CRAPPY RUBSNIFF

IMG_0652

Stanniford was waiting for them when they got back. He watched the two men enter the room and help themselves to drinks from his cabinet. They settled into a pair of leatherette armchairs on the other side of Stanniford’s desk. Soon, the only sound was that of the traffic on the main road and the ice chinking in their glasses. They seemed relaxed, but Haslam was looking anywhere but at him and Tasker couldn’t get his drink down fast enough. Stanniford left it a little longer. The drink wasn’t doing what it said on the label. Haslam started to squawk.

‘I think…’ he said. ‘I think…’

‘Charlie,’ Stanniford said. ‘That is something you manifestly do not do. I think. You listen. And act. Or you’re supposed to.’

‘I think…’ Haslam began again.

‘You think, therefore you’re a cunt,’ Stanniford said. He left him to it, slowly rolled his eyes Tasker’s way. Tasker was busy refilling his glass. His face was pinched hard and greying, as if someone had coated it with quick-drying cement. ‘What’s Descartes here trying to say, Phil?’

Tasker took a mouthful of whisky and swiped at some invisible hairs on his jacket. ‘He got away, John.’

‘You. Fucking. What?’

‘I think he did. It was hard to see. Dark. Lots of smoke. But I saw… we saw a shape coming out the back window.

‘Well now,’ Stanniford said. He caught a glimpse of himself in the waxing blackness of the window, a pallid man who had lost too much weight too quickly and resembled something ill-packed. His skin was baggy, as was the black Dior Homme wool suit, which had once looked so very sharp on him. The light was such that he was unable to see anything of his eyes beneath the heavy ledge of his brow, just a couple of wedges of shade above a hawkish nose and the humourless slit of his mouth. ‘Well now. What’s it come to? I can’t rely on my best men to do a job for me? Did you follow him?’

Haslam found his voice. ‘We followed him.’

‘But you lost him.’ Stanniford favoured the younger man with the kind of tones one might use with a child.

Tasker put down his glass and got to his feet. ‘We lost him, but there aren’t that many places he can go. We’ve shut the door on most of his people. Give us a little more time and we’ll flush him out.’

Stanniford sucked his top lip between his teeth. He had no choice, but he didn’t like conceding to an employee’s suggestions. ‘Fix me a drink,’ he said, flatly, not wanting one, but needing to lord it. ‘Vodka. Plenty of ice.’

Tasker handed him the glass but Stanniford took his time before accepting it, keeping his eyes on him, keeping the shadows there so the other man wouldn’t be able to read him.

‘You bring me Kelleher’s face in a paper bag before this time tomorrow night,’ he said, the ice chinking against the expensive crystal, ‘or I will have your arse for a fucking ink well.’

*

What had he lost? Really lost, in the grand scheme of things? A couple of secondhand paperbacks from the Scope shop down the road; a half-litre bottle of the cheapest white rum he could find; a batch of letters from Fran; his mobile phone. That was all. Losing the letters hurt most, of course, and he didn’t feel too great about grabbing the gun instead of the bundle before removing his arse from the flat. But Fran was dead and what she didn’t know couldn’t bring her back from the grave.

At least he had got one of the fuckers before they came for him. And it was good, really, that he hadn’t died. He’d have the rest of his lifetime to wish he had. They’d know how dangerous he could be. How far he was prepared to go. They’d be scared of him, a little. Maybe more.

Kelleher hadn’t stopped running for ten minutes, but now he ducked into the driveway of a house in Lordship Road to catch his breath and try to work out what to do next. The driveway was blocked, but not by anything so grand as a car. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen a car in a driveway, certainly not in London. Driveways were for skips or rotting mattresses, or, in this case, an old GEC cooker and half a dozen swollen, ripped bin bags. He sat down with his back against the cooker, trying not to displace the spilled tin cans and beer bottles too much. It was getting on for 2 am. A change in the wind brought back to him the swoop of the sirens from Amhurst Park. His clothes — thankfully he’d fallen asleep fully dressed — smelled of smoke and part of the sole of one of his Pro Keds had melted in the heat. What had they used back there? Had they doused the whole building in petrol? The place had gone up quicker than Argentinian inflation.

Kelleher checked his gun. A virgin clip, but his last. He’d need to find fresh ammo before dawn. The gun was a battered old thing, a 9 mm Glock 17 that felt too light and plasticky to give him any real confidence, but it was all he had, stolen from the safe of a Korean restaurant he’d burgled in Manchester the previous summer. He hated guns; if you had a gun, you were much more likely to get shot, but the stakes were so high in the city now. Everyone who was a player had a piece. If you didn’t… well, you weren’t a player. Simple as that.

He found himself wondering more and more about that these days. Not being a player. Losing the gun, losing himself. Maybe get out of N16 and drive north, don’t stop till the petrol runs out. Ditch the car, get a job in a bar, find some new walls and a roof, a woman to help forget himself for a while. It sounded so easy, but he couldn’t do it, not yet, not while the sound of Fran’s breath as it gurgled out of her body still swam around in his head.

It was cold, now that he had stopped running. Stopped running. Now there was a joke. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was such a considerate neighbour, he’d have sat there hooting his Jacob’s off at the hilarity of it all. Instead, he closed his eyes and tried to think of an open door, or at least a door that was slightly ajar, offering a chink of light, some warmth. Everyone he knew in the city had been scared off, or had disappeared. And so should he, but for what had happened to Fran. He couldn’t leave until he’d sorted that out.

He caught a night bus to Lewisham, a nightmare of a journey that involved a change at Trafalgar Square where he had to wait for 20 minutes for a connection. The driver woke him up with a nudge at a little before 3.30 am; the bus was parked in the terminus. He thanked him and stepped off, depressed by the oily quality of the dark. He walked the half mile or so to Hither Green Lane and took a right, stopping by the disused St George’s hospital, which was hunkered down in black shadows, its windows boarded up, looking like anything other than a place where you could go for help. Every building, though, looked like that to Kelleher now.

He forced himself to wait for five minutes. Every window in the street opposite he checked for movement. He clocked every car that trundled by and listened hard for footsteps, sniffed the air for the smell of cigarette smoke. All clear.

He paused again outside the flat on Lullingstone Lane and had one more check of the area around him: the residential parking bays and the high wooden fence on to the dead hospital’s grounds. The windows visible in St George’s were either boarded over, punched out or milky with smears. It seemed to suck the silence into itself, becoming ever more still and dark with each passing second. He knew, if he didn’t act, that he would become the same before long. Already he could feel vast corridors of emptiness reaching out inside him, offering him miles of darkness to walk alone.

He knocked on the door.

*

‘You fucking prick,’ Tasker said again. He regarded his partner, who was looking out through the passenger window, his elbow up against the door, busy with whatever feeble thoughts buzzed around that colossal head of his. Haslam wasn’t rising to his bait.

Not for the first time, Tasker wished that Nicky Preece had been able to last the pace. It would be good to have Nicky around now, inasmuch as any endgame could be described as being good. But he’d feel more confident with Preece, instead of this hair-trigger arsehole. Where the hell had Stanniford picked him up from? Tasker squeezed the steering wheel tight for a few seconds, until his knuckles whitened under the sodium lights streaming past the car as they nosed through Holborn. Nicky Preece was on a ventilator now at the Royal Free. Half of his chest had been blown away, and a leg too, one morning two weeks ago when he started his Mazda up outside his gaff in King’s Cross and found out, too late, that the engine had been souped up with something extra special. The day after, Tasker had rented a lock-up for his own motor. The day after that, Stanniford introduced him to Haslam.

He thought back to that evening. They’d met in the World’s End in Finsbury Park, a large pub with a purpose built stage for gigs and karaoke. Stanniford and Haslam were there waiting for them. Two pints of Stella sweating hard on the table. Nothing for Stanniford if the pub didn’t serve Finlandia. Tasker didn’t like the look of the other guy from the off. His muscles were gym muscles. He wore a goatee, one of those jobs that looked like he’d dribbled treacle from his bottom lip to his chin. And he looked around him nervously, fiddled with the buttons of his Paul Smith suit, licked and re-licked his mouth as if it was a fucking lollipop.

Stanniford, Mr Economy: ‘This is your new partner. No buts.’ And he was gone, leaving them to their pints like two desperates on a blind date.

Since then, their hunting of Kelleher had not gone as well as Tasker would have liked. This was partly down to Kelleher’s savvy, and refusal to stay in one place for longer than a night, but it was also because Haslam was making his shit hang sideways. Tasker couldn’t focus. Every time he felt he was drawing a bead on the situation, Haslam would say something to knock him out of whack. He was getting sick of it. If Stanniford refused to notice that Haslam was an issue, a fucking liability, then they could both piss off and play house together. There were other places he could work. At his age, he didn’t need the aggro.

‘What’s left?’ he asked now.

Haslam looked at him as if he’d just suggested they have sex with a couple of rats. He sat up in his seat and looked out as they swung on to Waterloo Bridge. It was raining.

‘Left is St Paul’s, the Barbican, Canary Wharf and — ’

‘Fucking hilarious,’ Tasker spat. ‘Answer the fucking question or you’ll be left too. Left on the fucking bridge. As fucking roadkill.’

He chewed his teeth while Haslam took his time opening the A-Z. Haslam said, ‘Swearing indicates a limited vocabulary, you know.’

‘Answering back to me indicates a limited intelligence,’ Tasker said. ‘Especially in this fucking car.’ Just push it, he thought, just fucking push it a little more and I’ll air some fucking grievances. And then I’ll air you, you scum-sucking piece of shit.

‘We’ve got a shit-pit off the Old Kent Road and that’s it. If he isn’t there, then he’s scooted. We’ll never find him.’

‘You lose this cocksure attitude in front of Stanniford, don’t you? You piss yourself.’

‘I don’t piss myself,’ Haslam said, his voice hard and flat. ‘I play Stanniford like a fish. He wants to see people intimidated in front of him. I tell you something. He’s more comfortable with me than he is with you. He isn’t sure about you.’

‘I’ve known John Stanniford twelve years,’ Tasker said, slowly, making sure he took it in.

‘Counts for nothing,’ Haslam said breezily. ‘He thinks you’re after his crown.’

Tasker’s fingernails had found the soft area at the base of his palms and were digging. He reined it all in and eased back in his seat. Brought the needle down from 45 to 35. There would be time, at the end of all this, to let his steam escape. And then —

He pulled up around the corner from the Dun Cow Surgery and got out without waiting to see what Haslam might say. His back to the main street he dipped his head into the flaps of his greatcoat and checked the chamber of his customised Brocock, then motioned for Haslam to follow. It had been Haslam’s idea to torch Kelleher’s flat and it was the first and last time he went with any of the smaller man’s dumbfuck ideas.

‘You stand in my shadow for this one,’ he warned Haslam as they moved into the target street.

‘Stanniford has us equals in this job.’

‘Yeah, well I’m not Stanniford and I’m telling you to fuck off. Watch our backs. You can cry your heart out to Stanniford later.’ He could feel Haslam tightening up behind him like the coil in an overwound watch. Once they reached the stairwell of the block of flats, however, he pushed Haslam out of his mind. As long as he did his job properly, he wouldn’t have to think of him again until they got back on the street.

But it didn’t work out like that. On the target corridor, Haslam was pumped up so much that he started kicking doors in. He’d done for three when Tasker decked him with a punch to his stomach. He swung around as babies’ screams and yells of consternation came from the adjoining flats.

He waited until the testosterone was coming at him from the doorways and then he showed them his gun. ‘Go back inside,’ he said, and they did, all good boys.

A little further along, Tasker rang a doorbell and a woman answered. He pushed her back into her flat, ignoring the strident demands as to who he was, and pressed the muzzle of the gun against her sternum. He smelled piss, very strong, as her bladder gave way. ‘You should drink more water,’ he said. Her mouth was doing the beached fish. She had nice eyes, but her skin was very tired, her hair so used to colour from a bottle that it was the consistency of straw. ‘I won’t harm you,’ he whispered, conscious of the clock ticking. ‘But if Kelleher is here, if you’re hiding him, give him to me now.’

*

It was difficult to lock down the precise moment that his London life had begun to fall apart. Fran’s death codified it, made it all super-real, but the spark that lit the kindling? If he wanted to be extra anal, he could go all the way back to the day he joined the gym, in his mid-teens, and started making all the connections his parents begged him not to make. But the stuff that was happening now could really only be measured from the date of the cricket match, two summers back, at a nice little ground in Herne Hill. A casual game set up by some friends of his, an excuse to get the barbecue out and order half a dozen cases of lager. Invite plenty of ladies along and hope the sun was strong enough to get them dressing in bikini tops and quim skimmers. It was an in for him. He met a few men who were intelligent enough to know that muscle was no good unless there was a brain on top of it all. One guy had impressed him more than the rest. It helped that they struck up a partnership with the bat out at the crease. Kelleher reached 74, the other man 88 — they’d put on 62 since the previous wicket had fallen — before Kelleher was caught, slashing at a ball on the off side. As he trooped off the pitch, the other man had shook his hand and invited him for a drink later. Yes, he had impressed Kelleher, but his mistress had impressed him more.

IMG_0650— I’m Frances, she had said when the game had been won. Stanny’s not stopped talking about you.

— Who’s Stanny? he asked, thinking I could care less, and wondering how much curve a man could take before he went raving mad.

— My man. Your partner out there. John Stanniford.

He’d turned up then, fresh from the shower, his gaunt face coloured in by the jets, his suit fitting him so well it looked as if it was something to be shed, rather than taken off.

— Great knock, Stanniford said, offering his hand again. Again, Kelleher took it.

— Great century. You carried your bat like a pro.

— Thanks, Stanniford said. Let me get you a drink.

Frances arched her eyebrows as Stanniford went over to the cooler chests and picked out three bottles of beer. — He never gets his own drinks, she got off, before he was back within earshot.

— You here with anyone I know? Stanniford asked him.

— Not really, just those clowns over there, the guys set the match up.

— Nice blokes. You work with them?

— No, Kelleher had said, pointedly, fixing Stanniford with a look, with a come on.

— You looking for work?

— Yes.

— Well, Stanniford said, knocking back the rest of his bottle and looking at his watch, best of luck. Hope you get some.

Then he was moving away and Frances was going with him, but not before looking back over her shoulder and tipping him a slow wink that he knew he’d carry into his dreams that night. He watched the silver Porsche Boxster swoop out of the car park and rebuffed all other parties, for the rest of the afternoon, evening and night, knowing that something was going to happen there.

And Christ, did it ever.

*

Stanniford suggested Marylebone Library because of its proximity to Paddington Police Station and because it had a security guard, which would make the punters more relaxed and unsuspecting. As an added bonus it was within spitting distance of the Westway, a quick out of the Smoke. And because, who’d have thought it? A fucking library.

It was all news that calmed their nerves. They said, we like it. We like it a lot.

The exchange: a hundred DVDs, no packaging, no labelling, zipped up in a Case Logic disc holder — teen-porn, smuggled in from the Hook of Holland that very morning — in return for a dozen handguns skimmed off the amnesty stockpile, courtesy of their PC Bentboy.

Stanniford was in a suite at the Landmark Hotel across the road, watching it all play out with a pair of Zeiss in one hand and a Finlandia with a fistful of cracked ice in the other. Frances lying on the sheets behind him, naked, smelling good, waiting for him to finish his drink.

The kicker: an hour before swapsies, the security guard had been taken out by Kelleher who was now sitting in the booth in a white shirt and clip-on tie, reading a copy of GQ and stroking the baseball bat at his side. Waiting to do some good work for his new boss.

Stanniford’s men came in a two minutes to eleven. Kelleher nodded at them: Tasker and Preece, good men. He watched them, Tasker carrying the disc holder, as they moved through the swing doors, past the reception desk and over to the travel section, back left of the library.

Five minutes later, and three minutes late, two more men entered the library, both of them uglier than something dreamed up by Grimm. One of them had a green North Face rucksack slung over his arm. Kelleher avoided eye contact. It was better that way.

He watched them move towards the music section back right of the library, where the CD shelves stood. He was distracted by someone knocking insistently on the booth window, but only for a second, till he realised it was his heart beating. Beating like it had the first time he and Frances fucked against the wall in Stanniford’s garage, a wild two-minute thrash in the middle of an evening’s entertaining at Stanniford’s pile out in Egham.

Keep those visuals, he thought, as he lifted the bat and edged out of the booth. Five past, now. A quick peek. The swap made. No trouble. Two men disappearing out through the swing doors at the back of the library, heading for the fire exit. Two men coming his way, making for the main doors.

Fran sucking hard on his ear as he went for it, sliding her hand up his back, her breasts scooped out over her Wonderbra, jiggling against his chest. The warmth of her, the unbelievable heat. He felt her heartbeat, an insistent code of need drumming through to him.

— Morning, ladies, he said, as the doors swung open. He clipped Preece across the jaw, which broke immediately, and he went down in a squealing heap, trying to keep his mouth where it was meant to be. Tasker he felled with a sharp swipe to a kneecap. The sound as it popped made him feel ill. Tasker too, by the look of his face: it filled with grey, the eyes rolling back in their sockets as if he was auditioning for something by George Romero. Kelleher gave Tasker another to the side of the head, to keep him down, and kicked Preece in the balls when it looked as if he was trying to get his hand in his pocket. Then he dropped the bat, picked up the rucksack and left, eyeballing nobody till he was in the Merc with the ugly sisters and screeching away along Upper Montagu Street.

In the back, he punched Fran’s number into his mobile.

— Kelleher. You fucking cunt.

He was about to hit the call end button but Stanniford wasn’t finished. Kelleher didn’t like this. Stanniford never picked up Fran’s calls. Not in the month since they’d been seeing each other, anway.

— This is how you treat someone who was never anything but polite with you?

Kelleher forced himself to remain civil. — I could have been good for you, he said. I was willing to be loyal. A good worker.

— I don’t need any more men, Stanniford said. And those that I’ve got are top professionals, worth any number of you.

— Yeah, well, you might want to come down to the entrance hall and help your top professionals to pick their teeth up off the fucking floor.’

— I’ m impressed, Stanniford said, in a voice that was anything but. Incidentally, I’ve put a stop to your covert shafting, what you thought was your covert shafting, of my bird. It’s all over. The end. She’s here on my hotel bed, room 27 at the Landmark, looking mighty fine, waiting for me to give her some attention. But I’m not in the mood now. I’ve already given her more than enough attention to last however many seconds are left of her lifetime.

Stanniford killed the link then, and Kelleher felt his mouth turn to dust.

— Go back, he said to Blondell, the ugliest driver in the world.

— Are you fucking nuts? asked Gearing, the ugliest passenger.

Kelleher opened the back door, the Merc doing 50 south along Baker Street.

Blondell, then: — Okay, okay, Jee-sus.

At the Landmark, Kelleher barged through the protests in reception and was about to shoulder down the door to room 27 when he saw that he didn’t need to. It was ajar. Seeing that crushed him. If the door had been locked, maybe he could have at least felt that he might have a chance to save her. But a door that was swinging on its hinges was the saddest sign in the world. He opened it anyway. The message Stanniford had left for him had been daubed on the wall in the stuff that had turned hot for him, been pushed around her body by the sweet tempo of her heart. You’d have thought he’d have the decency to spell his fucking name right.

*

Stanniford alone in the rooms above the cab firms, bookmakers and newsagents and endless, streaming traffic. Blackstock Road was doing an impression of a car production line at down tools. The Seven Sisters Road too was nose-to-tail, filling the air with exhaust fumes, impatient horns, blasphemy.

It was only 6 pm, but already the sky was midnight black. North London seemed at its happiest in the dark, as if it were in league with this colour, and revealed its best side. Stanniford watched the army of Arsenal supporters as they downed pints outside the The Twelve Pins or bought burgers and hot dogs from the portable listeria vans parked around Station Place. Some big game at the Emirates, some European night. A clash of the titans, no doubt. They don’t get much bigger than this.

The gun in the drawer was still there when he went to check it for the fourth or fifth time since daylight faded. He had loaded it himself that afternoon but couldn’t decide whether to keep the drawer closed or open. Maybe he should keep the piece in his pocket, but that would only spoil the lines of his suit, and a sharply-dressed man always had an edge over his opposition, even before guns came into the equation.

He poured a drink, a strong one, and took it back in one gulp. It had been such a long time since he’d been at the brink, stoked up to take a life. That was what his men were for, that was what being at this level was about. He didn’t have to do it anymore. He had paid his dues and passed the tests. He’d put the hours in over the years. Blood and fear were a young man’s game. Now he pulled strings and sent men to swap bullets or blades in order to gain ascendency and improve his territorial claims. Pity this this team of men were the most incapable bunch he’d assembled in his puff. He’d lost the nous that had served him so well in recent years when it came to judging character, it seemed. He should have brought in Kelleher at the start, despite his swagger, because of his swagger. Despite his transparent hots for Frances. What did it matter if he was boning her behind his back? He was only doing what he did himself every now and then. Did respect come into it? Was he really so up his own arse as to think that respect meant shit in this day and age? As long as he did the work, what did anything matter?

Well now it was too late. He knew that Tasker and Haslam would fail to hunt down Kelleher. Tasker was too full of resentment to be truly effective anymore and Haslam wasn’t so much the loaded gun he’d hoped for but a loose cannon. They’d had long enough. He knew too, and in this sense his hunches had not deserted him, that Kelleher would not fail to track him down. He was that kind of man, the kind that bears a grudge.

Stanniford stopped himself from reaching for the bottle again. And looking out of the window was the only way to prevent him from imagining the colour of his own death splashed all over the walls.

*

‘I don’t want you here,’ he said again. It seemed as though he had said nothing but in the half hour since Kelleher muscled by him into the living room.

‘It’s okay, it’s safe,’ Kelleher assured him. ‘I wouldn’t come here if I was drawing any heat, would I?’

‘How do I know that?’ he said. ‘How do you know that?’

‘I was careful.’

‘You? You’ve never been careful.’

Kelleher sat down finally, in the hope it might relax the older man. ‘I’ve learned how,’ he said. ‘I’ve been practising. Now Paul, please, relax. Got anything to drink?’

Paul spent longer in the kitchen than retrieving a couple of cans of Stella might have warranted, but Kelleher let it go. When he came back, and passed him his beer, Kelleher noticed the dilation of his pupils, and the dusting of white on his lips, but it was worth it to have Paul tucked up into a cosy manageability. Paul mouthed his can and asked if he had any cigarettes.

‘I don’t smoke,’ said Kelleher. ‘You know that.’

‘I’ve heard nothing but bad things about you, Rory,’ Paul said. ‘You’ve got some fucking nerve coming out here. I don’t want to get a caning for putting a roof over your head.’

‘They don’t know about you,’ Kelleher assured him. ‘You and Ally separated five years ago, for God’s sake. I haven’t talked to you for six. You might as well be some door I knocked on at random, hoping to find a good Samaritan open up.’

‘How come I get so much news about you then? How come?’

‘You haven’t heard any news,’ Kelleher said. ‘You’re playing safe with all that talk. But fair play, all that talk is still the right talk.’

‘See? You’re still fucking about. Still trying to play Goodfellas. You’ll get yourself killed. And me while you’re at it.’

‘Nobody knows about you,’ Kelleher said again, wishing he’d never had the idea to come down this way. But where else? Ally, his sister, was now overseas, living in Tuscany with friends she’d met at University. There was nobody else. Apart from Lucy, his aunt in SE15, but she wasn’t answering her phone. By choice, he hoped.

‘I didn’t want to come here,’ Kelleher said. ‘You think I want to come to the place where my sister took some beatings? The only time I thought I’d ever come here is to give you a fucking going over.’

‘So why are you here then?’ Whatever Paul had snorted was beginning to wear off already. A tiny thread of blood was creeping out of his left nostril. The rest of the flat was pale in comparison to this gentling of hard colour. Ally was still here, in many ways. Kelleher wasn’t certain that he could smell her perfume, but in the decor and the organised chaos her presence was acutely felt, to the extent that he thought she might roll in from the kitchen before too long, a joint smouldering between her fingers, to ask him if he wanted a plate of chips, or one of her fearsome Bloody Marys.

‘Some guys are trying to kill me.’

The line, like something cribbed from a Hollywood film, hung limply in the south London flat, like a deflated birthday balloon sellotaped to the ceiling that nobody can be bothered to retrieve. Paul didn’t even dignify it with a response for the time being. He sank the remains of his beer and went off for a couple more. When he came back the blood on his mouth had been smeared away, turned into an angry comma on his towelling bathrobe.

‘You can stay here tonight,’ he said, as if Kelleher had any intention of leaving if he deigned it. ‘But tomorrow you fuck off. I don’t want my life knackered because of you.’

As he left the room, Kelleher couldn’t resist it: ‘Words you’ve heard before, I’ll bet,’ he said. The door might have paused a fraction, in its shutting, but Paul didn’t come back.

He didn’t sleep. His confidence that he had not been followed was minutely chiselled away by the dark until every creak became the footstep of a man intent on snuffing him out. He wanted to get up and look through Ally’s things. He wanted to spit in Paul’s face and beat the shit out of him. He wanted Stanniford. He wanted to do to Stanniford what he had leisurely done to Fran, while Kelleher was sitting on his arse leafing through pre-pubescent magazines, getting a hard-on about how he was going to make the old cunt rue the fact that Kelleher had been rejected.

Uninvited memories of Fran kissing him hungrily, removing her knickers in the back of his car, he quelled by summoning thoughts of Ally. He had not spoken to Ally for almost as long as he had blanked Paul. She had been Paul’s apologist, even when her husband broke her collarbone, and Kelleher had given up hope of drumming sense into her dope-addled mind. When the only words you speak to your sister are warnings and those words are being ignored, it doesn’t come as a shock to you to find that you no longer communicate, when of course, it should do.

Kelleher rolled over on the sofa and closed his eyes. He and Ally sitting on a slight incline in Finsbury Park, right in the bullseye of summer, aged what — ten, eleven? — and he’s trying to nick what’s left of her ice cream after finishing hers. ‘Fossip!’ she yells at him.

‘What the bloody hell?’ he says. Around them, people are strewn in the grass like human litter, smoking weed, drinking cider from bottles, listening to cricket on the radio.

‘Fossip,’ she says again, more casually, licking at her 99. ‘Collip. Dipoots collip.’

He’s looking at her blankly, more, in an almost panicked way. It’s as if his speech has suddenly become redundant, as if everyone else has graduated to a new level of communication but forgotten to tell him what the new frequency is.

‘Ally, what — ?’

She rolls her eyes and groans. ‘Say it backwards, you tit. God, you are so thick.’

Sudden delight. A new game. They play it all summer, infuriating their parents with the simple code.

‘Cuff the ecilop,’ he says to his dad, trying to pencil in his choice for the 3.15 at Kempton Park.

‘What’s that, a new band?’

‘Sick my bon,’ he says to his mum, as she puts away the shopping.

‘That’s nice, dear.’

He and Ally, crying with laughter, close to suffocation sometimes with the pointless hilarity of it all. Had they laughed so much in the years since? Had they laughed at all? They had ruled Finsbury Park back then; he had never had anything but good memories of the place, an age before Stanniford’s stain crept all over his thoughts.

Somehow he did sleep, his edges softened by memories of childhood. When he wakened, an hour before the sun was due to rise, he was shivering, having shrugged off his leather jacket. He got up, washed quickly in the kitchen sink, and stole an apple for his breakfast from Paul’s fridge. He was at the front door, about to let himself out, when he paused. He could hear his erstwhile brother-in-law’s laboured breathing from the bedroom. Part of him wanted to sneak a glimpse of it to see how much of Ally remained in there. Quite a bit, he suspected, given Paul’s apparent inability to sweep away the cobwebs and start afresh.

He unzipped his jeans and pissed into Paul’s coat pocket. Then he went out, and slammed the door behind him as hard as he could.

*

Haslam was asleep. Tasker watched the other man slowly drool across the dashboard of his car. His face was too fucking big for his features; Tasker hated that. He also hated the fact that Haslam wore one of those stupid pins that went through the collars of his shirt with a fine chain attached that rested on the front of his knotted tie. He hadn’t seen those since he was at school. He hated Haslam’s thick bottom lip and thin upper one. He constantly looked like a camel chewing a bit of toffee. The twat.

‘Twat,’ he said.

‘Hey?’ Haslam came out of sleep and regarded Tasker with red-rimmed eyes.

‘Wake up, Sparky,’ Tasker said. ‘No bonus for you if you sleep on the job.’

‘I wasn’t sleeping. I was resting my eyes.’

‘Rest your fucking lip,’ Tasker said. He could feel himself getting fired up inside, the way he felt whenever he day-dreamed about violence. He wanted Haslam to slap him, so he could retaliate with an excuse, really go to work on him without worrying about how Stanniford would react.

He craned his neck and looked up at Stanniford’s office. He suspected the light there had burned all night, certainly for as long as they’d been there, which was about two and a half hours now, since Stanniford called them in on the mobile. ‘You guard that fucking entrance during the night from now on,’ he’d said, in a strangled voice. Soft old fucker. Shitting himself in his little room. Sucking on the voddie bottle like it was a nipple.

‘Nothing will get past,’ Tasker had said. His jaw still twinged occasionally where Kelleher had tapped him with the bat. Sometimes he lay awake in bed, trembling with the need to pay him back, with interest.

‘I want some coffee. Is the rag-head’s shop open yet? You want some coffee?’

‘Stay in the fucking car.’

Seven Sisters Road was gearing tself up for the morning’s rush. Buses carrying the first wave of commuters — the zombified 6 am shifts — rattled by, breathing diesel fumes all over Tasker’s Beemer, parked illegally on the pavement by the bowling alley on Stroud Green Road. Tasker caught sight of Stanniford at the window, a man whose face seemed to be made entirely of shadow, his body beneath the immaculate suit of stuff barely more tangible. He saw Stanniford rub his mouth and loosen his tie. Then the light went off.

Difficult for a man to do, even Stanniford, when you were twenty feet away from the light switch.

‘Shit,’ Tasker said. He got out of the car and that was what saved his life. He was into the road, Haslam mimicking him with a falsetto voice: Stay in the fucking car, stay in the fucking car, when it went up like a rigged vehicle in a James Bond film. The blast helped Tasker to cross the street faster than he would otherwise have managed, and he hit the doorway of a hairdressers hard, thinking as he went down how grateful he was that the door was made of wood and not glass.

Haslam tried to follow him, the poor, game fuck. But he was never going to get too far with both his legs gone at the knees and fire fucking him over every square inch of his body.

Tasker was on his feet and moving to the entrance to Stanniford’s gaff before the other man had given up and turned instead to the small matter of his own death.

*

bulb

The sky was putting on some blusher, but it was still too dark in the room to see what had gone down. Tasker toed the threshold, looking in, wetting and re-wetting his lips, his eyes as wide as he could get them, sucking in every possible crumb of light, trying to put some meaning to the shapes in front of him.

‘John?’ he said. His voice hit the wall and dropped, much as he had done only a minute or so before. There were no other sounds. ‘Kelleher?’

A voice. Little more than a whisper. What was it saying? Oh, God, something like that.

‘John? John. Are you all right?’

He edged into the room. It looked as if Kelleher had been and gone, but too fast, perhaps, to make sure of a kill. A shape in the window was too dark to be a cloud, now he was certain that it was blood. And Stanniford’s desk looked as though it had a heap of clothing on it. The light was improving all the time. He could discern the soft gleam of Stanniford’s expensive suit, sprawled over the blotter and the phone. He saw a foot twitch. Tasker entered the room and switched on the light, but the bulb had been removed.

Fuck.

‘It’s okay, John,’ he said, edging closer. He thought he could smell the smoke from the burning car coming up the stairs after him. It wouldn’t be long before the filth turned up. He switched the Brocock to his other hand and fished out his Nokia.

He was dialling for an ambulance when Stanniford shifted on the desk, rolled over slightly. Something wasn’t quite right.

Oh, Dod…Oh, Dod.’

There was too much bulk for the man to be Stanniford. Then maybe Stanniford had got his shot in first and put his man down. In which case, where was his boss?

Oh, Dod.’

‘What the fuck — ’ Tasker said. His last words as Stanniford moved, fast, much too fast for a man turned stale after years of sitting behind a desk drinking neat vodka.

Kelleher, in a jacket much too tight for him, grinned up at Tasker and showed him the muzzle of his Glock. ‘Oh, Dod,’ he said again. ‘And you’re as dead as.’

One shot.

*

He took off Stanniford’s jacket and ruined it by covering Tasker’s body. Then he went over to the bar and pulled Stanniford out from behind it by the hair and the plastic ties that bound his wrists and feet. The older man’s face was red with effort. Perhaps he was choking on the gag. Maybe he was having a heart attack. Get in quick then.

Sirens were approaching, still half a mile away, perhaps. With any luck they’d be preoccupied by the burning car in Fonthill Road.

‘Bye, John,’ he said. ‘I hope you’ve got Fran’s sweet face in your thoughts right now.’

Kelleher never wanted Stanniford’s face in his thoughts again so he shot him in it six times. He reloaded the Glock, and shot him again until the trigger was clicking on the spent clip. Another six ought to do it, he thought. He needed a lot of blood, more perhaps than Stanniford was carrying, for the message, the fucking letter, he wanted to write on his walls.

Dust and Desire: OUT NOW!

Today marks the publication of Dust and Desire. Thanks to Titan for producing a beautiful book. I hope you enjoy Joel Sorrell’s first outing, and the exclusive short story Do Not Resuscitate.

DSC_0009 (1)

When he opened his mouth to speak, fire flew from between his teeth. His clothes were burnt off him and he had the girl’s body. I went to him and twisted his head off, as easily as loosening the screw-cap on a bottle of pop. Inside his head were the words MADE IN CHINA. When I looked at his face, he was the girl from the mag. She winked at us and peeled herself open. I stepped inside her and fell asleep for a thousand years.

‘This is the real deal: crime writing of a flint-edged, visceral nature that may initially appear to foreground narrative momentum, but is really about character; character, that is, which is delivered on the hoof. This is writing of real authority, and Williams is a genuine talent.’
Barry Forshaw, Crime Time

‘I loved this book, great ending. It accompanied me on a long swing through New York, Boston and Philadelphia.’ – James Sallis, author of Drive