I probe the wide gash on the back of my skull with calloused fingers. Blood courses down my neck, soaking my collar. The doorman – a thickset man known as Feral Errol – grabs my bloody jacket and slams me face-first into a piece of rust-ravaged sheet metal.
I reach for the sock full of pound coins in my jacket pocket. It feels heavier than before. So much for an easy job.
Two days earlier.
I’m staring at Khalil’s prison haircut through the scarred plexiglass, waiting for him to say something else. The barber evidently made no effort to accommodate the horse-shoe shaped scar on the side of his head, and the hair in the middle sticks up in a thick clump.
He places his hands face down on the table and smiles bitterly. Two of the fingers on his right hand look like they have been bitten off at the first knuckle. Jesus. Poor motherfucker.
Until last month Khalil worked as a tax inspector. He had a varied client list, but he was a straight-shooter. A biker known as Sugar-Lump burned down his office after a paperwork discrepancy, and Khalil – ill-tempered at the best of times – snapped, detonating a nail-bomb in a whites-only pub. I later heard that h included long roofing nails to cause the maximum amount of carnage.
Channings Wood has a big white power inmate contingent, and the prison governor buried Khalil in the Vulnerable Prisoners Unit for his own safety. It used to be mainly sex offenders, but now they keep the fucking crazies in there as well. Some of these guys are so far off the grid they no longer remember what the grid even looked like. Painting the walls with their own shit is one thing, but these guys like biting chunks out of one another in the exercise yard. I look at the raw-looking stumps on Khalil’s hand again. Poor bastard has only been inside three weeks.
He taps his remaining fingers on the table irritably, and I break the silence.
“What you gonna do, Khalil? Pay me in cigarettes and chocolate bars?”
“I have money. In a floor safe at my old office. Take your finder’s fee out of that. Give the rest to Ani.”
“What is there to stop me from scarpering with your loot?”
His hard green eyes soften, momentarily.
“You loved her once, didn’t you?”
The visiting room suddenly feels hot enough to blister paintwork.
“Ok. Give me a week. I’ll find her.”
He collapses back into his orange plastic chair. He looks deflated, but something close to a smile flickers across his dry lips.
Ani is a mess of contradictions: a neat drink in a dirty glass. We were close once upon a time, but she liked the drugs better than she ever liked me, and I walked away.
Khalil barely knew me – certainly didn’t like me – but I wasn’t surprised when he called me from prison. He knows what I do for a living, knows my reputation for violence. I have never used a nail-bomb, but then again, no one has ever burned down my place of work either.
I waited until after dark and then sifted through the ashes that used to be his tax office. The safe was heat-damaged, but intact. The door gave way with a minimal help from my crowbar.
There was £5,000 inside.
I had heard that Ani was working off a drug debt at a club called the Honey Bucket. The place is co-owned by a local businessman called Remy Cornish. I have history with him – none of it pleasant, some of it bloody – but I don’t expect him to be a problem: Remy has been wheelchair-bound since a man named Franco Moretti shot off his kneecaps. In this town violent men call the tune.
Unable to drive, Remy now employs a hatchet-faced chauffeur named Mulligan. The driver was having a smoke break in the alley next to the club when I bludgeoned him with a sock full of pound coins. I felt bad about it, but not bad enough to hold back. After I was done there was a lump of his scalp stuck to the sock
The girl at the ticket desk is about as sexy as a jailhouse wedding – I can see why she isn’t allowed onstage. I pull Mulligan’s peaked cap over my eyes and slouch through the lobby, trying to look inconspicuous. She grunts, but doesn’t say a word.
Inside the club, the backing track is murderously slow. The five girls onstage look uneasy as they get their grind on. They are naked apart from their wigs and their go-go boots. They are all wearing Cleopatra wigs, apart from Ani – she is wearing a long, platinum blonde wig. It clashes badly with her pubic hair, which is the colour of burned plastic.
I stride through the packed crowd and climb onto the stage, hoisting Ani’s naked, writhing body onto my shoulder. We are halfway across the club when she tries to bite me. It brings back memories. She always was a biter.
As I reach the lobby I feel the back of my skull crack. I turn around to see the ticket-taker scowling at me, upturned shotgun in hand. She is scowling and looks uglier than a boneyard dog. Oh, fuck.
I wriggle free of Feral Errol’s clumsy grip and cosh him across the face. The coins leave his nose smeared halfway across his cheek.
On the pavement, Remy looks enormous in his medium-sized wheelchair. The girl with the shotgun is next to him, trembling.
“Give her back, young man, and I promise I won’t kill you.”
I laugh, despite my busted skull.
“If I leave her here she will be turning tricks in a fairground fuck-truck by Christmas.”
Now it’s his turn to laugh. It sounds more like a wheeze.
“Kerry – shoot this bastard.”
I run at her swinging the sock full of pound coins. The first shotgun blast narrowly misses my head. The second stops me in my tracks – damn near blows a hole through my fucking thigh.
I lay back on the tarmac, writhing in a pool of pain.
All I can think about is Khalil’s £5,000 – hidden in a pillowcase back at my rooming house. Man, I was nearly rich.
I close my eyes and I laugh until I pass out.
Tom Leins spent two years working as a film critic for esteemed (but now-defunct) UK movie magazine DVD Monthly. Since the magazine closed down in 2009 he has contributed to a variety of websites, not least Devon & Cornwall Film – which showcases ‘Sex, Leins & Videotape‘ – his increasingly sporadic DVD column. Over the last decade Tom’s short stories have been published in magazines and on websites all over the world. He is currently working on an increasingly demented series of ‘Paignton Noir’ novels including: ‘Thirsty & Miserable’, ‘All Is Swell In The Grinding Light’, ‘Once Upon A Time In The Projects’, ‘Exile On Winner Street’ and ‘Tropical Malady’. Broadly categorised as ‘Psycho-Noir’, the books blend Psycho-Geography and Noir to disturbing, sometimes entertaining, effect. An experimental novel about the amateur wrestling industry – entitled ‘Hardcore Got Stale’ – is also on the agenda.