Chapter One PREVIEW
Sheryl had let the barman from the Poets talk his way into staying the night again. Christ knows why. He had all the chat, she supposed. And he could seem so eager. At the time anyway. You'd never know it to look at him now. Flat on his back, snoring like a porker. In the light of her bedside lamp he looked his age too. His eyes were his best feature. Deep blue, always coaxing a smile. But they were tight shut now and what you noticed instead was the stubble on his doubling chin, the bloated red veins that had started to scar the tip and the sides of his nose, the way his mouth seemed to shudder at the finale of each snore. She turned away from him so that she only had to hear, didn't have to see as well. At least, she thought, he was a bloke. A man. Not some daft lad who'd get possessive, want to move in, start telling you what to do. His wife didn't mind, he said. Maybe, maybe not. Most likely when you looked the way she did you didn't have much choice anyway. The back end of a bus didn't really get it. Unless it was one that had been rammed by a ten ton truck. He always said he didn't have sex with her anymore. Sheryl hoped he wasn't lying. Even the idea of being shagged by the same prick as that.
She slid out of bed and got dressed quickly. Jeans and a blue top. A jumper that really needed to go in the wash. She closed the bedroom door behind her quietly but firmly. She'd rather that Anne-Marie didn't know there was anybody on the premises. Not for certain at any rate. She'd already have noticed the line of empty Super Lager tins in front of the fireplace; the unfamiliar pack of Marlboro next to her mum's Silk Cut. Anne-Marie was ten and brighter than a button: she never missed a thing, could put two and two together alright. A good riser too. Always up and about before you needed to shout her. She was in the kitchen when Sheryl walked though, making sure that the little one, Lucy, didn't put too much sugar on her bowl of rice crispies.
Outside it was still dark. And pissing down as usual - a wet, ceaseless drizzle. But the girls - or Anne-Marie anyway - skipped towards the bus shelter as if the pavement was the yellow brick road. Just about the only thing you could say in favour of William Blake House was that it was handy for the bus. Some parts of the estate it was a quarter of an hour's walk to the nearest stop.
Sheryl checked her watch once they were settled and underway. The bus was on time for once. Seven thirty on the dot. If it reached the Flowers Street depot on schedule, they'd have a clear five minutes to catch their other bus. The eight fifteen, not the eight thirty. Which meant there would be a chance of getting there on time, of not dashing breathless across the playground at the last frigging minute. They'd told her at the council offices that the journey would be a problem right from the start. That they couldn't be expected to put on a school bus for just two pupils. She hadn't let them put her off. Nor the snooty school secretary neither - when she'd phoned to make an appointment to talk to the headteacher about enrolment. You had the right to send your kids to any school these days. End of. And no way were Sheryl 's two little sweethearts going to the local primary on the Woodlands, learning how to roll a joint - how to blag a corner shop - before they even knew how to tie their shoe laces properly. She'd dug her heels in. Simple as that.
The bus took a corner on the sharp side. Lucy elbowed Anne-Marie with more force than the swerve merited.
The bus pulled out of the estate, heading towards the town centre. Dave the barman would most probably be gone when she got back. He'd see himself out, make sure the door was double-locked, sling the spare key back through the letter box. He was good like that really. Not a bad sort. He'd probably leave her something too. Ten, twenty, maybe even thirty. It wasn't paying for it. It was nothing like that at all. A young girl like you, he'd said one time, the notion swimming somewhere under the surface of the conversation: where either of them could look at it when the other one wasn't. On your own, two little kiddies. Only natural to help out, isn't it?
She'd laughed throatily before she'd replied, let him undo the buttons of her blouse, nestled her head deep onto his chest. Don't be soft, Dave. A big handsome man like you always gets it for free.
Florida Boy and Charlie waited in Charlie's car until the slapper, Sheryl or whatever, and her brats were well and truly on the bus and well and truly off the estate. It would be a clean job, Charlie reminded himself. Straight in, straight out. They were professionals now. Or very nearly: the years of kids' stuff almost finally behind them. Take the car as an instance. Sound until the end of the week. Soundness virtually guaranteed, virtually built-in. Yesterday afternoon, he'd fare dodged Richard Branson all the way over to Birmingham New Street and then out to the NEC. Only kids nicked cars in their own backyard. Professionals brought their transport in from elsewhere. Likewise he'd ignored the amateur opportunities available in the Exhibition Centre car park. Cars that would be missed in hours not days. Charlie had made a plan and he'd stuck to it: taxi ride over to the airport concourse, an inconspicuous latte in the Lavazza franchise, a brisk stroll across to the long-stay car park. He'd instantly rejected anything too new, anything too upmarket, had been looking for something solid and dependable, something that would be virtually invisible.
Florida Boy ran edgy, twitchy fingers along the walnut fascia below the windscreen.
The deal was this. A week's try-out with no questions asked. A few odds and sods that needed taking care of. Jobs the regular crew didn't want bothering with, done to the letter with zero assistance. Fuck up or get caught and they were on their own. Come through clean as a whistle - nothing else was good enough - and they'd be on the pay roll, three months trial.
They got out of the car and Taylor locked it. Casually, but not wasting any time, they walked the thirty or so yards along the pavement and then up to the entrance way. William Blake House was medium-rise. Ten floors only. There were five other identical blocks standing next to it. A monotonous row punctuated by scrubby patches of grass and potholed tarmac. They stood shuffling outside for a minute, hoods up for the rain as much as anything. FB rattled the main doors but they were locked. The council had forked out for a security upgrade recently. Each block had telecom entry these days. You pressed the number of the mug you'd come to visit and the mug buzzed you in.
The wait for an unofficial entrée took less than another twenty seconds. A young lad in a ripped puffa jacket emerged from the lifts, approached the glass fronted doors. The council had sent every tenant a leaflet. Never Let in Strangers. Florida Boy gave the kid his look as he came through the leftside door. But the kid was sussed anyway, not even the hint of minor disagreement on his face. He held the door wide open for them.
They took the stairs up without rushing. A nasty big four on the wall told them when they'd reached the right level. Somebody had graffitoed a hyphen and the word 'skin' underneath the number in green paint. Hopeless, unfunny. Charlie pulled open the connecting door that led to the flats themselves. New locks were another feature. Not that bad actually. But Charlie's sister lived three blocks along at Byron House. He'd gone up there last night, put in a worthwhile couple of hours. It had looked like a screwdriver job at first. But practice makes perfect and all that. He could manage it with the credit card now. Simple, quiet: exactly how he liked it. All you had to do was get the angle right, put a bit of weight pressure on. Just so.
Dave the barman was still in bed. Sat up reading the problem page in one of the tart's magazines, it looked like. Plus smoking a half-smoked cigarette.
Charlie had brought a generous length of clothes line, also courtesy of his sister. They trussed the cunt up while he was still stunned from the blow.
© Iain McDowall, 2003. All rights reserved.