Iain McDowall
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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.
   "Morning, Mum," she said. "I told her it's bad for her teeth."
   "Morning, loves."
   She squeezed round the table, kissing them in turn on the top of the head.
   Lucy giggled.
   "I dreamed I was a pirate," she said.
   "Did you now?"
   She clicked on the kettle, spooned instant coffee into a mug. There was a dismal pile of washing up next to the sink. But she decided she could deal with it later. When she'd made the coffee she went through to the living room, sank into the sofa, found her fag packet. She always had to have a ciggy to start the day. But no way she would breathe nicotine over their little lungs while they ate their breakfast. She noticed a bra, the one from last night, lying discarded next to her. She picked it up, stuffed it behind a cushion for now. She lit the cigarette, took a few puffs, sipped the coffee. The remote had been under the bra. She moved it back on to the low, unsteady table, left it alone, rearranged the pile of magazines into something less un-neat. She couldn't handle breakfast TV, couldn't understand how anybody would want all that bloody noise first thing in the morning, all those bright lights and busyness. She could hear the girls in the bathroom now: Anne-Marie's bossy tones, Lucy still giggling. The big sister was good with the little sister, thank God. Better than good: brilliant, great. Always had her ready on time, always had her turned out properly. In a few minutes they'd present themselves in front of her for inspection and approval. She finished the cigarette and the coffee, checked her hair in the big embossed mirror above the fireplace. It was an ugly fucking thing, she'd always thought. Harley-Davidson in garish lettering along the bottom. The picture of the bike itself always getting in the way. But she'd picked it up cheap. It would have to do for the time being.
   "We're ready now, Mum," Anne-Marie said from the doorway, still fussing with Lucy's scarf. Sheryl pulled on her coat, ushered them out into the unlit, broken lightbulbed hall. She undid the chain on the door and followed them out towards the stairwell. They were never ever to use the lifts, she'd told them. Never ever. She never did herself. Not even when shopping was involved. Too filthy, too smelly. Too many horror stories. The stairs led up and down, gave you a fighting, shouting, screaming chance in two directions. The lifts offered you up pre-confined and trapped. A ready meal: a chicken in a broiler.

   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.
   "Whoo, whee," she said.
   Then again:
   "Whoo, whee."
   But Anne-Marie kept her eyes buried inside her book. Sheryl shooshed Lucy, stroking the back of her head gently as she did so. Leaning back, she caught her own reflection in the window. Her too-thin mouth looked taut, her eyes nervous and drawn. I 'll take them myself if I have to. Sheryl had wanted Barton Primary for the girls - and in the end she'd got it. The other side of town. What they called a good area. Doctors and lawyers sent their kids there. Parents with proper jobs in offices. All that. Grant, the young guy from the advice centre, had helped her. He'd sorted out the paperwork, fixed up bus passes for the girls. She'd wondered if he'd been after something in return. But he'd never said. Shy maybe. Or gay, according to one rumour. Too bad if he was - with his nice, quiet smile. Sex with him would be some kind of easy, gentle thing. Not the usual fucking rough house.

   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.
   "Just the ticket, Charles, old bean. Just the fucking ticket and all-round bees knees," he said.
   Charlie nodded agreement. Not that Florida Boy had scope to quarrel anyway. A Rover 216, P reg: a fucking sight faster than it looked and fearsomely boring. No self-respecting dibble would be seen stopping one in a month of Sundays. Besides, if all went well, by the time they needed to get rid, they'd be in the bloody firm, feet under the bloody table. That could very well mean taking possession of something sleek and shiny, not to mention legit. Charlie Taylor and Florida Boy Bilston for the use of. Tax disc, insurance, the fucking lot. Permanent membership at babe magnet city. He slid down the window and tipped his ash thoughtfully.

   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.
   "The bees knees and all-round fucking ticket," Florida Boy repeated.
   Evidently Bilston was well pilled up. That could be something he'd have to watch in future, Charlie thought. As it turned out though, it was probably no bad thing for this morning's first little task. For something of this nature, you needed to go in boisterous, not giving a flying fuck. Especially as it would be mainly down to FB anyway. The way Charlie saw it, he would be there more in the role of a facilitator himself . That was another thing about turning professional: utilising skills to the max, building on the strengths of your associates. The clock on the walnut dash pulsed from seven thirty-nine to seven forty. Taylor stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray, tapped Bilston lightly on his forearm.
   "Right, mate," he said, as matter-of-factly as he could.  "Time you and me were making a move."

   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.
   "Cheers mate," Charlie said evenly.
   Courtesy cost nothing where it had been duly earned.

   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.
   "Voila, as they say in France," he whispered, putting the card back in his pocket.
   "The dirty foul foreign bastards, old bean," Florida Boy replied.
   Charlie opened the door with infinite slowness, made a sign for quiet, followed FB inside.

   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.
   "Tut, tut. Filthy habit," Florida Boy said, looming up in the doorway.
   He'd crept through the flat like the proverbial fucking dormouse but now he was through with fannying about. Dave cursed them, was throwing back the purple duvet, swinging his legs out. He was a big enough guy but Florida Boy already had the tyre lever out from under his fleece, landed a good one smack across the chops before Dave's big, hairy feet could touch the very, very non-matching carpet.

   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.
   "Twatted and all-round stuffed," Florida Boy said, his eyes pill bright and blinking.




© Iain McDowall, 2003. All rights reserved.


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