A short story in 5 Episodes by A.W. Rock
I was walking down Wardour Street with the intention of dropping into Costas Lounge, a bar frequented by Soho’s bon viveurs when a young woman ran out of an alleyway and straight into me. She tripped and fell into the gutter. I crouched down to help her; she was having difficulty breathing and her eyes were wide open, staring without blinking. It looked like she was suffering from an overdose and her pulse seemed to confirm it. She had dyed black hair, with a bleached blond fringe that was stuck in strips to her sweat-soaked forehead. Her narrow jet-black eyebrows seemed to leap off her waxen white skin. She was fast becoming a mannequin. Then I saw the circle of blood in the middle of her stomach.
There wasn’t a lot I could do to help so I turned on my pay-as-you-go dialled 999, asked for an ambulance and then removed the battery. No one else seemed interested.
She was barely alive but hyperventilating so I cupped my hands over her mouth to control her oxygen intake and kept calmly telling her to breathe slowly.
She was staring at me, “Tell him I’m so sorry”, she said.
She had piercings through her lip, nose and ears; each one filled with decorative silver pins and rings; enough to repay the national debt. Her eyes were heavy with black make-up that gave the impression of dark potholes into her soul. I recognised her but couldn’t place her – where had I seen her before? Perhaps she just had a familiar look.
When I heard the ambulance siren I moved slowly away; I didn’t want the police to see me and I didn’t want to talk to them.
Costas Lounge was well worn but comfortable. The walls had yellowed from years of cigar and cigarette smoke. The room is furnished with small tables and ancient leather sofas that looked as though they were taken from an old manor house. The daylight filtered into the room through wooden Venetian blinds, augmented by wall and table lamps with a panelled bar on the left.
The barman, Marie, was a woman, tall, slim with a massive mane of hair; she performed behind the worn mahogany bar.
There was a big man in the corner. I checked him out. People have a vibe about them. Everybody has, and most people sense it instinctively. You meet someone and instantly you feel affinity, dislike or indifference.
Even across the crowded bar I sensed that this man was unstable and unpredictable. My instinct told me that given almost any excuse this man would willingly erupt into violence. I made a mental note not to stare at him or provoke him.
Marie turned up the music and the man in the corner looked up from his newspaper and used his questioning face. She didn’t see it.
He went up to the bar and asked her to turn it down. He was dressed in a dark double-breasted suit, black shirt with a Nehru collar round a thick neck.
Marie was naturally easy-going and friendly. She smiled, turned the sound down and carried on loading the dish-washer.
He surveyed the room, checking if anyone wanted to disagree with him, and walked out.
I had an uncertain occupation, just like a plumber. If you wanted me there was a small unlicensed, therefore illegal, premises in Greek Street, on the first floor, with a Bakelite phone on the corner of the bar.
Sean was the man who ran it. He would open and close on a whim and it was perfect for my headquarters. I gave Sean fifty pounds a week for the facility and he would take a number, write it on a book-match and pass it on to me when I dropped by; it was the only bar I knew where smoking was encouraged.
Sean had a simple sense of humour and when I asked him to take my messages and told him my name was Bill he forever more called me old Bill.
Should the old Bill get the number and find Sean’s bar, which was extremely unlikely, he would deny all knowledge of anything going on. And since he didn’t know anything about me he couldn’t help them even if they threatened him.
I couldn’t get the girl off my mind. Her wounded stomach troubled me; perhaps not as much as it had troubled her.
I wondered if I’d been recorded on CCTV when I’d stopped to help her. It didn’t look like she’d survive the attack and the police would be bound to find witnesses and check all the cameras in the area. My brown raincoat and knitted cap were hardly conspicuous so when I returned to the scene of the crime I removed the cap; I could have been anybody.
I had been given an address in Wardour Street, it was a brand new development of swanky flats called Soho Retreat. I had been reccéing the area when the girl arrived at my feet.
I walked past on the other side of the street; I didn’t have a choice because the gutter that the girl had fallen in was cordoned off with police tape; that confirmed to me that she’d been murdered.
The alleyway she had appeared from was directly opposite the block of flats occupied by my target.
I knew little of the reason I’d been hired but I rarely asked anyway; the less I knew and the less they knew, the better. Anonymity and discretion were my selling points.
The murder squad were preoccupied with the forensics and examining the area. It appeared that they didn’t know the girl had come out of the alleyway because I could push past the taped off area and into the alleyway without attracting their attention.
The alley had a kink in it before it exited out onto Berwick Street market. There were two doors on the right and three on the left and I wondered if the girl had come out of one of those because if she had stumbled through the market someone would have probably tried to help her. The five doors were all anonymous, no signs, no names. I looked through the letterboxes of the three doors that had them. No sounds, no lights, no life.
I had no clue which door the girl might have come from so I used the knocker, several times, of the first door. Nothing.
Then I noticed that one of the doors had a spy-hole; that was enough for me to make it my next choice.
There was no bell or knocker so I banged on the door.
Eventually I woke the dead and a voice from inside said, “Not today, thank you.”
I banged again.
The voice said, “Please go away.”
I took a chance and shouted through the door, “What happened to the girl?”
There was a long pause then, “Go away.”
He or she hadn’t asked ‘what girl?’ That was enough for me to ask again, “How did she get hurt?”
Another long pause, then he or she asked, “What girl?” The question had come too late. I smiled at the spy-hole and said, “If you open the door maybe I can help you.”
“It’s too late for help.” This time the voice was cracking up.
“It’s never too late.. if you don’t deal with it now you’ll never get over it.. it will always be there.”
“What’s it got to do with you?”
“She bumped into me and asked me for help”.
Bolts were unbolted and locks unlocked; slowly the door to Fort Knox opened. There was still a security chain across the inside that prevented the door opening more than a few inches.
I could just see a heavily made-up face set back in the darkness; a tear caught the daylight.
He/she said nothing.
“What happened?” I asked.
“It was an accident.”
“Did she fall on her sword?”
“Never mind.. tell me what happened.. let me help you.”
“I’m not dressed.”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to dress up for me.. She told me to tell you that she was sorry.”
There was a long silence as he/she stared at me from the dark. Then the chain slid back and the door opened.
He was two metres tall and wearing full battle make-up, thick enough to stop the arrows penetrating his insecurity. His hair was smarmed flat, stuck to his head; he resembled a polished bullet. Every so often the false eyelashes closed like curtains over his proscenium arch eyes.
The hallway was empty and dark enough to invoke a feeling of uncertainty.
“Accidents happen.. tell me about it”, I said.
“How did you know her?”, he asked.
“I met her at Madame Jo Jo’s”, I lied, but also guessing that this was a club that my host might frequent.
The long satin gown swished as he glided into a room off the corridor; embroidered on the back in large pink script was the name ‘Julian’. I followed him into a baroque kitchen and he put a kettle on a stove that must have been built by the Victorians.
“What happened to your Goth friend?”, I asked.
“She got mixed up with a dodgy mob who were dealing in guns and tanks.”
“Tanks.. what the.. “
“Yeah, tanks to small African countries.. and they think I know about it.”
“What is it they think you know?”
“I wish I knew.. They’ve killed her and I think they’re going to kill me.”
On a shelf beside the stove I saw a photograph of Goth and Julian with their arms around a large black man.
“Who killed her?”, I asked.
Julian looked at me, shrugged and carried on making a single mug of tea.
“What was Goth involved in?”
“There’s an African man who lives in one of those nouveau riche apartments across the street.. maybe he knows something about it. Goth was involved with him.”
“I don’t know darling.. you’ll just have to find out for yourself.
I realised that Julian had little else to offer so I took my leave.
There’s a smart cocktail bar next to the entrance to Soho Retreat. I ended up in the window with a drink that cost half of a working man’s weekly salary.
However slowly I drank I’d had three cocktails and was on a whisky and water before the African man arrived.
But instead of going into the flats he changed his mind and came into the bar. While I added more water to my whisky and waited he got involved in an animated conversation with a very attractive woman at the bar. It must have been another hour before he paid the bill and the pair of them went next door. I took the tumbler that had contained my whisky and followed them. He put a card into the entry system and the front door opened. Once inside he was sufficiently distracted by the woman not to notice that I had slipped my foot into the gap before the door closed. He disappeared into the lift and I waited to see which floor it stopped at. I had probably been seen on CCTV at the entrance so I had to move quickly. I ran up to the penthouse suite two steps at a time and I was on the floor below when I heard his door click shut. Checking the landing for cameras I used the tumbler I had stolen to listen at his front door.
I could hear his answerphone messages playing back and I recognised Julian’s voice warning him about someone who had visited him; it had to be me. I wanted to hear more. He was pacing up and down talking on the phone when suddenly the door swung open. The African grabbed me and smashed my head against the doorjamb, and while I was still stunned threw me face down on the floor and handcuffed my arms behind my back. He was strong.
“Well now..”, he said, “.. welcome, I’ve been expecting you.”
I could hardly hear him. I was concussed, my head ached and it felt as if somebody was pushing a red-hot poker through my brain.
“I want to know if you’ve been hired to get rid of me?” he said.
“I was hired to find out who you are.. no more than that”, I said.
“Well here I am.. and I’ve been waiting for you.. you aren’t here by mistake.”
There was no point in not telling him the little I knew, “Somebody contacted me and asked me to check out who lived at this address. I don’t deal in names just fees, so I don’t have my client’s name for you.”
“It was me that contacted you and you who has walked into my trap.. I’ve been trying to find you for some time now.
The room was spinning and I wanted to throw up.
“Have you been sent to murder me?” he asked.
“If that was the case I wouldn’t be lying here and you wouldn’t be standing up”, I said, trying to turn onto my back, “You murdered the girl to entrap me?”
“No, I did not, I’m not a killer, I wanted to see how good you were so I commissioned you to find me.”
The doorbell rang and Julian was there in the room with us. The maquillage had been retouched to remove the tear tracks. He was wearing tight black latex rubber thigh length boots with red satin trousers and silicone breasts covered by a shiny pink blouse. To complete the illusion he wore a full length, loose black open gown embroidered with a golden dragon. He had a blonde wig that stood three stories above him; he had to duck to get through the door.
“Do you know who I am?” the African asked me.
“No idea..”, I said, “..but if you let me stand up I might have a better chance of guessing.”
“I am Omo Ican, son of Papa Ican…”
“And I’m not interested”, I interrupted.
Omo continued, “…and I’m trying to bring peace between Africa’s different tribes and religions, but there are people who don’t want me to succeed.”
“Why should that concern me?” I asked.
“The Muslim extremists don’t want any kind of unification, and because I haven’t pledged allegiance to them they call me an apostate and I’ve been sentenced to death.”
“What can I do about that?” I asked.
“They have sent a contract killer and I want you to find him.”
“Then what?” I asked.
“That’s a stupid question.. it was because of your reputation that I looked for you.“ He picked up a large padded envelope from the coffee table and threw it on the floor beside me, “I will pay you fifteen thousand pounds, in cash, to remove my problem.”
I was angry, “I want to know exactly what I’m getting involved in. If you don’t tell me the whole story you can keep your envelope.”
“They are a very small group who are intent on carrying out this fatwah.. they have limited resources and limited access in this country.”
“If I eliminate the first one they’ll send another”, I said.
“I doubt it, they have other more important targets, they want to cause chaos.. destroy major public venues in this country. But if they do send another one you are going to be able to afford to buy yourself some decent clothes.”
“Okay, take these cuffs off and make me feel at home.. then I’ll consider your offer.”
Omo threw the keys to Julian and took a small .38 snub-nose revolver from his belt, “Don’t think about getting your own back.. I will shoot you.”
I left the envelope of cash where it was, sat in his smart Eames leather chair and considered that the man I had thought was my target might now become my employer.
Julian had been silently watching my reaction to Omo.
“Whoever murdered Scarlet probably followed her from here to my apartment. I was out and they must have tried to get her to talk. Then they stabbed her..”, Julian was spoiling his make-up again, “.. we were in love.”
“What happened to the tanks?” I asked Julian.
They both stared at me for a while.
Omo turned to Julian, “What have you been telling him?”
“I invented some tanks.. I thought it would frighten him off.. and he’d leave me alone.”
“It doesn’t look like it worked, does it?” Omo asked.
“I want him gone..”, said Julian, pointing at me, “.. you don’t need him, just let him go.”
“Do you want the contract or not?” Omo asked me, opening the envelope, “.. here’s five grand up front and ten grand if you remove the threat.”
I took the money and took the job.
As I was leaving I told Omo, “I saw an odd looking bloke in Costas Lounge this morning, he didn’t fit and he didn’t look like he wanted to. There was something about him.”
Omo waived an arm, “Check him out.”
I went down to the street. I was wondering where to start. I felt uneasy. Why did Julian show up out of the blue? Why was he so keen to get Omo to let me go? How and why did the Goth get involved with Omo? Was Omo fucking the Goth? There were too many unanswered questions.
I went back to the bar next door; this time I could easily afford the coffee. I had finished my second espresso when I decided that the only way I could narrow down the field and trace the potential killer was to get more information from Omo.
I was about to knock on his door when I heard shouting and screaming coming from inside.
The door was too substantial for me to kick open so I started banging on it.
The door suddenly opened and the woman I had seen go up with Omo was standing there sprayed with blood.
I pushed past her, stopped and saw Julian pointing Omo’s gun at him. Omo was holding his stomach, blood was running down his legs; there was a carving knife on the carpet between them. Neither of them had seen me.
“You stupid bastard..” Julian screamed, “.. I set you up.. I sent my Scarlet to lure you in, and you fell for her. It was me they contracted to kill you. Now I want you to suffer.. I had to dispose of Scarlet because she didn’t want me to kill you.. she had fallen for you.. the stupid girl said that she’d go to the police if I killed you.”
I was four paces from Julian and I had to grab the gun before anything else.
Omo sunk down to his knees and coughed up blood.
Julian bent forward, “I love the Islamic State.. I worship with my brothers.. they look after me.. Allahu Akbar.”
I yelled loudly to distract Julian and as he twisted towards me I grabbed the gun with my left hand pushing my thumb under the hammer. He pulled the trigger and I felt the hammer stab through my fingernail but the adrenalin got me through it.
I jabbed my fingers into his throat and chopped down onto the side of his neck. He went down heavily and wouldn’t be getting up in a hurry.
I got the woman to phone 999 and then hold a cloth tightly to Omo’s wound.
I wiped my fingerprints off the gun, took the parcel of cash from the table and told him I didn’t exist. I don’t know how much he took in but he nodded.
The following day the front-page headline in the Soho Gazette sounded like a track from a rapper’s album,