A short story in seven parts.
I was walking down Wardour Street on my way to Costas Lounge when a 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 had overdosed and her pulse seemed to confirm it. She had dyed black hair, with a bleached blonde fringe that was stuck in strips to her sweat-soaked brow. Her narrow jet-black eyebrows seemed ready to leap off her waxen white skin. 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 and asked for an ambulance. Then I removed the battery and sim card. No one else seemed interested; they just stepped round us.
She was barely alive but hyperventilating. I kept telling her to breathe slowly.
She was staring at me, “Tell him I’m so sorry”, she said, gasping for breath.
Then the Goth died in my arms.
She had piercings through her lip, nose and ears; each one filled with decorative silver pins and rings. Her eyes were heavy with black make-up that seemed like dark portholes 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 sirens I moved slowly away; I didn’t want to talk to the police.
Costas Lounge was well worn but comfortable. The walls had yellowed from years of cigar and cigarette smoke. The room was furnished with small tables and ancient leather sofas that looked as though they had been taken from an old manor house. The daylight filtered into the room through wooden Venetian blinds, augmented by wall and table lamps and with a panelled bar on the left. The clientele were a mixed bag of Soho’s bon viveurs and young wannabes.
Marie, the barman, was performing behind the worn mahogany bar.
I noticed a woman in the corner; I’d never seen her in Costas’ before. Some people have a distinct vibe and you can feel an affinity, a dislike or just indifference towards them.
Even across the crowded bar my instinct told me that this woman was trouble and would willingly invite an argument.
I made a mental note not to stare at her.
Marie turned up the music and the woman looked up from her newspaper. She went up to the bar and asked Marie to turn the volume down. She was dressed in a dark double-breasted suit and a black shirt with a Nehru collar.
Marie smiled, turned the sound down and carried on loading the dish-washer.
The woman surveyed the room, checking if anyone wanted to disagree with her, and then walked out.
I had an unpredictable occupation. If someone wanted to contact me there was an old phone in the corner of Costas’ bar and it was the only way of reaching me. I had made an arrangement with him that for fifty pounds a week he or Marie would take a message and pass it on when I dropped by. Costas would take a message then deny all knowledge of me and since I had deliberately not given him any details he couldn’t help them anyway.
Costas had taken a call from an anonymous man. The man had asked him if he knew of someone who helped people get out of sticky situations because he had a problem and had been given this phone number by a previous client.
Costas was his usual enigmatic self. The caller had asked him to ask me to trace an African man. Apparently he lived in a brand new development of swanky flats called Soho Retreat in Wardour Street. And if I confirmed his existence I would be paid well.
I wondered why I was asked to trace this man if they’d already got his address? I had nothing else on at that time and I was curious. I hadn’t been given a name or any other information or how I would be paid or who I would notify if and when I found the man. Since it appeared to be a risk free and relatively easy commission I took a gamble.
I didn’t know why 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 unique selling points.
I couldn’t get the girl off my mind. I’d been in the middle of that job reccéing the area when she had arrived at my feet. I wondered if I’d been recorded on CCTV when I stopped to help her. 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 but before I returned to the scene of the crime I removed the coat and cap anyway; I could have been anybody.
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 boxed in with police tape.
The alleyway she had appeared from was directly opposite the block of flats occupied by my target.
The murder squad were preoccupied with forensically 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 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. The 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 clues so I used the knocker several times on the first door.
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, “Who are you?”
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 before she died in my arms she asked me to pass on a message.”
Bolts were unbolted and locks unlocked; slowly the door 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.
He/she slumped back against the wall in tears, “It was an accident.”
“Did she fall on her sword?”
“What? What are you saying?”
“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 darkness. 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.
Trying to pull himself together he asked, “How did you know her?”,
“I met her at Madame Jo Jo’s”, I lied, 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 struggled to put an ancient cast iron kettle on the stove; he needed bigger biceps.
“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?”
He screeched hysterically, “I wish I knew.. they’ve killed her and I think they’re going to kill me.”
On the table I saw a printed photograph of Goth and Julian with their arms around a large black man.
“Who killed her?”, I asked.
Julian looked at me, shook his head, turned away from me and carried on making a single mug of tea.
“What was Goth involved in?”, I asked.
“I don’t know.”, he shouted.
I wasn’t included in Julian’s solo tea party and he wasn’t prepared to offer anymore information so I took my leave.
There’s a smart cocktail bar next to the entrance of Soho Retreat and I positioned myself in the window with a drink that cost half a working man’s weekly salary.
I waited and however slowly I drank I’d had two 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. I added more water to my whisky and watched as he got involved in an animated conversation with a woman at the bar. Then I realised that she was the woman I’d seen earlier at Costas’.
It must have been an hour before he paid the bill and the pair of them went next door. I took my empty whisky tumbler 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 to listen at his front door.
I could hear an answerphone message playing back and I recognised Julian’s voice warning him about someone who had visited him; it had to be me he was talking about. The man 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 throbbed 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.”
“Well here I am.. and I’ve been waiting for you.. you aren’t here by mistake.”
The woman I’d seen in Costas’ bar was standing silently watching. There was no point in not telling them 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 who 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 approached by anyone to murder me?” he asked.
“If that was the case I wouldn’t be lying here and you wouldn’t be standing there”, I said, trying to turn onto my back, “Why did you murder the girl?”, I asked.
“No, I’m not a killer, I wanted to find you so I made it easy for you to find me.. Scarlet was something else. The doorbell rang and the woman went to open it.
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.”
My head ached and I was annoyed, “I want to know exactly what you’re trying to get me involved in.”
The African stared at me, then made up his mind, he said, “I am Omo Ican, son of Papa Ican, and I’m trying to bring peace between Rwanda’s different tribes and religions. Islam is on the increase and the Christians are paranoid.. there are covert groups of Tutsi who will never forgive the Hutu..”, he paused for effect, “.. and there are people out there who don’t want me to succeed.”
“Why involve me?” I asked.
“The Muslim extremists don’t want any kind of unification, and because I haven’t pledged to bring the sides together 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 whoever it is.”
“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 five thousand pounds, in cash, to remove my problem.”
“What’s your agenda? What will you gain? I assume there are rich pickings for you out there. If you don’t tell me the whole story you can keep your envelope.”
Omo hesitated, “I only have the interests of my country at heart.. there is a small group intent on carrying out the fatwah against me.. they have limited resources and limited access in this country.”
“If I eliminate the first one they’ll send another.. and they’ll keep coming”, I said.
“If you negate the first threat and they send another assassin you can deal with it.. then you’ll be able to afford 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 watching my reaction to Omo. Then his anger boiled over and he pointed at the woman, “She murdered my Scarlet, she followed her from here to my house.. then she stabbed her..”, Julian was spoiling his make-up again, “.. I was in love with Scarlet.”
“What happened to the tanks?” I asked Julian.
The three of them stared at me for a moment.
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”, Omo said.
“I want him gone..”, said Julian, pointing at me, “..just let him go.”
“Do you want the contract or not?..” Omo asked me, picking up the envelope, “.. there’s five grand up front and another five if you find and remove the threat.”
I took the money and took the job.
As I was leaving I picked up the tumbler I’d dropped in the hallway and went down to the street.
I felt uneasy. Why did Julian show up out of the blue having already told me he knew nothing? Why was he so keen to get Omo to let me go? How and why did Scarlet get involved with Omo? There were too many unanswered questions.
Now I could easily afford a drink so I went back to the bar next door. I had taken some pain-killers and finished my second espresso when I decided that the only way I could narrow the field and trace any 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 opened suddenly and the woman was standing there sprayed with blood and holding a carving knife.
I shoved her hard and she fell backwards. I saw Julian pointing Omo’s gun at him. Omo was holding his stomach, blood running down his legs. Neither of them had seen me.
“You stupid bastard..”, Julian screamed at Omo, “.. I set you up.. I sent my Scarlet to lure you in, and you fell for her.” Pointing at the woman, “She instructed me to kill you.. Scarlet didn’t want me to kill you.. she had fallen
for you.. the stupid bitch said she’d go to the police if I killed you.. so..”
I was four paces from Julian and I had to grab the gun.
Omo sank down to his knees and started coughing up blood.
Julian lent over Omo, pointing at the woman again, he was sobbing, “She converted me to Islam.. it is the only true path.. God is great.” He was about to pull the trigger.
I yelled loudly to distract him and as he turned 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. I hesitated for a moment with the pain then chopped down heavily onto the side of his neck, he fell and wouldn’t be getting up any time soon.
Then the woman shouted, “Allahu Akbar”, and lunged at me with the knife. I stepped back avoiding the charge and with my right hand released my thumb from the revolver. The woman lunged at me again. I blocked her arm and shot her twice through the chest.
I grabbed a cushion and left Omo to hold it to his wound.
From a phone lying on the coffee table I dialled 999 for the second time that day. Adopting a choking African accent I gave them the address.
I wiped my fingerprints off the phone and the gun and put the gun into Julian’s hand. I took the envelope of cash from the table and told Omo that I felt that I’d earned it, and as far as he was concerned I didn’t exist. I don’t know how much he took in but he nodded.
As I left I heard the police siren. I wiped the door clean where I had banged on it and hurried down the stairs.
The following day the front-page headline in the Soho Gazette sounded like a track from a rapper’s album,
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