M.I.U. Bow Street, London, WC2E
Monday, 21 February 2011
“Don’t look now, Sunshine, but it looks like you’ve got a fan.”
“What?” My mind focussed solely on the thought of getting up to the office and wrapping my frozen fingers around a cup of tea, I pay little attention to Ronnie’s comment and don’t slow my stride as we make our way towards the stairs through the custody area.
“The nasty looking piece of work waiting over there for Sergeant Blake to book him in,” Ronnie continues, pushing on blithely in the face of my disinterest, “he’s staring at you like he’s never seen anything quite like it before.”
“Are you sure it’s me he’s looking at?” I query, glancing over my shoulder at Ronnie and putting on an act of shaking my head at what I see. “As I wasn’t the one who just inhaled two pasties in record time I know I’m not the one covered in pastry crumbs, so…”
Ronnie, just as I’d hoped, immediately brushes away the few stray crumbs left over from his lunch that were still clinging to his coat before meeting my gaze and giving an unbothered shrug. “I was hungry.”
“You’re always hungry,” I counter, “it’s one of those fact of life type things. You know, up there with grass being green and the Pope being Catholic, or… Or, I don’t know… West Ham always getting hammered?”
“And you having an unhealthy obsession with my eating habits.” Grinning, Ronnie closes his hand around my shoulder and feigns a serious expression. “Have you ever considered getting a hobby, something to perhaps take your mind off constantly charting what I put in my mouth?” Pausing, he smirks and gives my shoulder a squeeze. “I’ve heard Airfix is still popular.”
I groan and bat his hand away. “You have, have you?” I mutter, gesturing at the stairwell. “Tell you what, I’ll buy you a Spitfire kit for your next birthday. Now, come on. I’m dying of thirst here and can hear a teabag upstairs with my name on it calling out to me.”
“I’d get that checked out if I were you.”
“The delusion that you can hear teabags calling out to you.”
“I had been going to offer to make you one too, but if you think I’m mad and want nothing to do with me…”
“Think?” Ronnie interrupts with a laugh. “There’s no… think… about it. I know you’re mad. Hell, I’ve known it for years.”
“With a partner like you, who needs enemies?” Rolling my eyes in a mock display of wounded feelings, I reach the stairs and am about to start up them when Ronnie grabs my arm to stop me from going any further.
“Actually, Matt,” he murmurs in a quiet voice completely devoid of the teasing good humour of only a few seconds ago, “just slow down for a moment and check out the bloke in custody. All jokes aside, I really don’t like the way he’s looking at you.”
Not liking the clear undercurrent of worry in Ronnie’s tone, I do as asked and casually glance over in the direction of the custody desk. The man waiting for Sergeant Blake to finish entering his details into the system before being shown to his cell stares back at me with an expression on his face that I realise has far more to do with outright contempt or dislike than it does simple curiosity. Easily over six foot and solidly built, the man has a shaven head, multiple earrings in each ear, a dodgy looking anarchy symbol tattooed on his neck and, clad in the street uniform of trainers, black jeans and a grey Nike hoodie, he basically looks like any number of the thugs I’ve both encountered and locked up over the years. Although there’s something about him, his sunken, drug-bright blue eyes perhaps, that makes me think I should be able to place him, I can’t off the top of my head and shrug. “Maybe I just remind him of someone.”
“Someone he’d hoped never to see again,” Ronnie mutters, frowning. “His charming mug isn’t ringing any bells? Maybe you nicked him a while back or something? Come on, Matty, think. There’s just something about him that isn’t sitting right with me.”
“I’m sure I just remind him of someone he’d rather not be reminded of,” I reply as, not seeing any need to share Ronnie’s obvious unease about the man, I begin to make my way up the stairs. “Come on. He can’t stare at me and upset your delicate equilibrium if we’re upstairs.”
“I knew I was right about him,” Ronnie announces with a self satisfied sigh as he pushes back in his chair and stretches. “He… is… a nasty piece of work.”
The report I’m trying to write not going well, I seize on the welcome diversion of Ronnie’s seemingly random comment and wheel my chair back from the desk in order to give him my full attention. “Who’s a nasty piece of work?”
“That lowlife in custody who was staring at you.” Swivelling around in his seat to face me, he pushes his glasses up to his forehead and adds, “Talk about a capital T toerag. He’s in on a bag-snatching charge which, for the grand total of a fiver, he put a ninety-three year old woman in hospital with both shock and a badly broken wrist.”
“Charming,” I agree sarcastically. “A truly upstanding member of society then. I still don’t know what it’s got to do with me though.” Shifting my chair closer to Ronnie’s, I gesture at his computer screen and the telltale custody record displayed on it. “Seeing as you’ve clearly got his record up, have you checked to see if I nicked him once or something?”
“Despite having one of the longest arrest records I’ve seen for a while, no, you’ve never had the honour of slapping the cuffs on him,” Ronnie replies as he slides his glasses back down onto his nose and returns his attention to the computer. “Breaking and entering, dealing, fencing, assault, twocking, drug offences, drunk and disorderly, solicitation… Add rape and murder to the list and he’d have the full set.”
“Give him time.” While my interest in the man is still a long way off what Ronnie’s clearly is, I’m now curious enough about him to want to know just what it is he thought he was seeing in me and, leaning forward, I gesture again at the screen. “As this isn’t getting us any closer to knowing why he was staring at me, what’s the toerag’s name? Maybe that’ll jog my memory.”
Nodding, Ronnie uses the mouse to scroll up to the top of the screen. “Thomas Clarke. Gives his address as the Pembury.”
I groan. “The Pembury, huh? That just about explains everything.” Frowning, I stand up and lean over Ronnie’s shoulder to get a closer look at the information up on his screen. “Thomas Clarke, Thomas Clarke,” I repeat, the name sounding just familiar enough to make me wonder why. “I feel as though I should know the name, but…” Trailing off, I tap the screen with my finger. “What’s his date of birth? Maybe that’ll do it for me.”
“Somehow, although with record like his I honestly don’t see how, the delightful granny-mugging Mr Clarke has made it to the ripe old age of thirty-six,” Ronnie responds. “Date of birth is the thirteenth of…”
Suddenly knowing what Ronnie’s going to say, I slump back down in my chair and, a curious sense of emptiness descending over me as all the pieces fall into an unexpected position, run my fingers through my hair. “Date of birth is the thirteenth of January nineteen-seventy-five,” I finish quietly, “and he’s always been known as Tommy, not Thomas. We…” I sigh and, tilting my head back, stare up at the ceiling. “We went to school together.”
“You’ve got five minutes,” Sergeant Blake states matter-of-factly as he places the key in the lock and slowly opens the cell door. His expression of disbelief tinged with annoyance – more, I like to think, at the fact I’m refusing to listen to reason than at having been roused from out behind his comfy desk – reminds me of the one on Ronnie’s face when I told him that there was just no help for it, that I felt as though I simply had to try talk to Tommy and, just as I did my partner’s, I ignore it and push on regardless.
“Thanks.” I smile and glance pointedly towards the door that leads out of the cells and into the custody area. “I really appreciate it.”
“Yeah. I’ll remember that when I have to pull the mad bastard off you because he’s suddenly decided you’ve looked at him funny or whatever,” Blake mutters. “You know where the panic button is, Devlin, other than that you’re on your own.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” I reply, disguising the obvious tone of doubt in my voice with another, slightly more forced this time, smile. “We… We’re old friends.”
Blake shrugs and begins to walk off. “Don’t kid yourself, mate. Tommy’s only friends are whatever illicit substances he can get his grubby mitts on.” Snorting, he shakes his head. “And even they don’t seem to like him very much.”
His final disparaging piece said, Blake disappears into the custody area and, for pretty much no reason other than I feel as though I have to, that it’s both expected of me and the right thing to do, I push the door fully open and step into the cell. Although I know who it is I’m looking at now I still struggle to recognise the boy I once knew in the man before me and, all my good intentions deserting me without so much as a backwards glance, I quite literally don’t know what to say. Gone is the innocent boy who, with his dark blond curls and big blue eyes, used to have all the adults oohing and aahing over his angelic, cherubic appearance, and in his place sits, staring at me as though contempt only begins to cover what he’s thinking of my unwanted presence in his life, a common, estate-variety thug.
Twenty years may have passed since I last saw him, and his thoroughly spectacular fall from… the realm of common decency… may sadden as much as it disgusts me, but we share a history and I feel as though I owe it to him to help if I can.
That’s what I have to keep telling myself, anyway.
“Well I never,” Tommy drawls as he nonchalantly leans back against the wall from his position on the bed and slowly looks me up and down. “If it isn’t little Matty Devlin, all grown up and playing at being a copper.”
Not liking either the way he’s looking at me or the way my skin is trying not to crawl from coming under such invasive attention, I position myself just inside the doorway and make a point of looking him in the eye. “Tommy, I…”
“You’re not my brief,” Tommy interrupts, his expression changing to a truly menacing one, “so fuck off. I don’t have to talk to you.”
“No, you don’t,” I agree with a shrug. “If it helps I’m not hear to talk to you about the charge against you and…”
“Stupid old biddy,” Tommy mutters, cutting me off again. “If she’d just let go of the fucking bag I wouldn’t even be here. I hope she dies. Then try fitting me up in a line-up.”
Appalled at his callousness but refusing to acknowledge it, I shrug again and pick up where I left off. “I’m sorry that I didn’t recognise you earlier and want you to know that I’m here for you if you’d like any help. I’m not involved in the case but if you’re interested I could pull some strings and get you checked into a rehab facility. The CPS would probably…”
Pushing away from the wall, Tommy sits up straight and silences me with a narrow eyed glare. “Fuck off, Matty. I don’t want your help and I don’t fucking need it either. I’m fine.”
“Fine?” I laugh drily and shake my head. “You broke an old woman’s wrist for five pounds. I’m sorry, Tommy, but that’s not fine. In fact, in my book it’s far from fine.”
“Yeah, but you and me haven’t been singing from the same hymn book for years now, Matty, and you’re off your fucking head if you’re standing there thinking we ever will again. Just… Fuck off back into your holier-than-thou world and leave me the fuck alone.”
“I can help.”
“No. You can’t.”
“Listen, Tommy, I’m still your friend and I want to…”
“I always knew you’d end up a copper,” Tommy murmurs apropos of nothing. “Even as a kid you fucking oozed righteousness. I don’t know if you remember, but whenever we played cops and robbers you always refused outright to be one of the robbers. One day we really pushed you on it and I honestly thought you were going to burst into tears.”
Although I’m taken aback by Tommy’s comment I’m not gullible enough to be lulled into a false sense of hope from it and smile cautiously. “Pete used to happily play the part of a robber though,” I reply, “and he went into the force too, so…”
“Garvey’s a copper too?” Tommy interjects with a dry, dismissive snort. “Now that I didn’t see coming.”
“Was,” I correct softly as, suddenly regretting having opened myself up for this, I sigh and, for the first time since entering the cell, take my eyes off Tommy for fear of him fixating on the pain I know he’d be able to see in them.
“Huh? What do you mean… was? Don’t tell me he came to his senses and…”
“He’s dead, Tommy,” I interrupt. As much as I don’t want to be having this conversation I know that I have to finish what I’ve started and choke back another sigh. “Pete killed himself last year. Nugent came back into…”
“Don’t… Don’t say that bastard’s name!”
Ignoring the breathless, possibly even warning tone to Tommy’s voice, and just wanting to get it out, I continue as though he’d never even opened his mouth. “It’s okay. We got him. We may not have been able to save Pete from reliving what he did to…”
“Drop it, Matty.”
“It’s alright, Tommy, we got the bastard. Nugent’s…”
“For fuck’s sake,” Tommy howls as, suddenly jumping to his feet, he rushes over and slams me hard up against the wall, “just stop saying the fucker’s name!”
“Thanks.” I take the cup of tea from Ronnie and wrap my hands around it. “Four sugars, yeah?”
“Of course,” he confirms, giving me an odd look. “Given that you felt compelled to ask, are you sure you don’t have concussion?”
I give what can be best described as a lacklustre shrug and dredge up a wan smile. “I’m fine. I don’t suppose though whether you’ve got any…”
“At the risk of opening myself up for Mystic Meg jokes, here,” Ronnie replies as he digs two Nurofen out of his pocket and holds them towards me. “When I heard Blake mention the dint in the cell wall from where your head hit it, I knew you’d be needing them.”
Nodding my thanks I quickly swallow the painkillers and wash them down with a welcome mouthful of overly sweet tea. “Blake’s exaggerating,” I murmur, relaxing back in my chair and gazing around the thankfully empty office. “I don’t know if you’ve seen the inside of the cells lately but they’re full of dints and dings and I’m confident that whatever dint in the plaster Blake gleefully pointed out to you was there long before I ever stepped foot in the place.”
“Maybe… But the decrepit state of the cell aside, there’s no brushing off the lovely red marks you’re now sporting on your neck,” Ronnie responds as he wheels his chair next to mine before taking a seat and lightly touching my knee to get my attention. “So, do all your old school chums try to kill you, or is it just the special ones?”
The look of obvious concern on Ronnie’s face making me feel even more wretched about things than I did when Sergeant Blake pulled Tommy away and shoved me out of the cell, I sigh and give another half-hearted shrug. “Just the special ones,” I reply. “Most of the others wouldn’t even recognise me as someone they went to school with. Not because I’ve changed so much or anything like that, more because… Well, more because I think I was just invisible.”
“Hmm…” Using my knee to steer by, Ronnie gently spins my chair around until I’m facing him. “Blake says that unless you press charges there’s not enough to keep Tommy here,” he states conversationally, as though we’re talking about any old suspect and he’s not being eaten alive with curiosity in respect to just what the hell it is I think I’m playing at. “CCTV didn’t catch him running down the street with the bag and his victim, just to make things that little bit worse, has Alzheimer’s and can’t even remember leaving the house this morning, let alone having her bag snatched.”
“I…” Unable to meet Ronnie’s gaze because I know what I’m about to say is going to disappoint him, I lower my head and stare down at my tea. “I’m not pressing charges. It was unintentional and God knows I should have known better, but I provoked him and… It’s my fault. Let’s just leave it at that.”
“Blake had to pull the mad bastard off of you,” Ronnie retorts bluntly. “For God’s sake, Matt, he had his hands around your throat. Now, I don’t know what you said to him to set him off like that but there’s no way you can sit there and justify his reaction as warranted.”
“It’s my fault,” I repeat, risking a fleeting glance at my partner before deliberately stalling for time by taking a slow sip of tea. “Please, just let it drop. I accept the blame for what happened, I’m not going to press charges and I don’t want to make an issue of it. I’m sorry if this disappoints you, but I’ve made my mind up.”
“Look, I made the mistake of mentioning Nugent, okay?” Looking up, I watch as an expression of shocked recognition settles over Ronnie’s face and know instinctively that everything now makes almost as much sense to him as it does to me.
Sighing, Ronnie slumps back in his chair. “Nugent, he…”
“Yes.” Launching into an expletive laden rant about Nugent and how little I happen to think of him not going to achieve anything, I scowl and add quietly, “Just like with Harry and Pete, he couldn’t keep his slimy hands off him. So… Yeah. I never should have mentioned the bastard’s name and don’t want anything more made of it.”
“So, this Tommy,” Ronnie murmurs, cunningly changing the topic slightly to what he no doubt believes is the more pressing issue, “he’s not just someone you happened to go to school with then, is he?”
“No. He’s more than that.” I shake my head and smile wryly. “But you’d already worked that out for yourself.”
“Hey,” Ronnie grins, “I’ll have you know I didn’t make detective on my good looks alone.”
My mood lightening fractionally at his facetious response, I laugh and toast him with my cup of tea. “In that case I suppose you know everything already and that, really, there’s nothing more I need to say.”
“Nice try, Sunshine,” Ronnie mutters, stretching out his foot and giving my ankle a warning nudge, “but I think you’ve got a fair bit of explaining to do and I’m telling you now that I’m not going to get off your back until I know just what it is that’s going on here.”
Accepting that the time has come to offer Ronnie the explanation that I know I owe him, I nod and, with a final mouthful of sugary tea to fortify myself, make a start. “You’re right, of course, Tommy is more than just someone I went to school with. For ten years, from when he moved into the street when I was five until he ran off when I was fifteen, he was as much a part of my life as my parents were. Along with Pete and Harry we were pretty inseparable. School, sports, church. We were always together. Well, that is we were up until I was twelve. Then…” Pausing, I sigh and rub my temples, the headache I’d been hoping to stave off with the Nurofen beginning to throb with a vengeance.
“It’s all very well looking back with hindsight and all that,” I continue wearily, “but, and I’m sure you know what’s coming, we were just kids. You know, making the best of what we had and taking each day as it came. Harry hid in books, Pete buried it and pushed on as though nothing had ever happened, and Tommy, he… He threw himself wholeheartedly in to a rebellious stage that, by the look of things, he never moved on from. From wagging school to running with older, tougher kids and experimenting with booze and anything else he could get his hands on, he just went off the rails. Then, when I was fifteen he left home and we never saw him again. Now, I know twenty years have passed and that he’s not the boy I used to know, but I feel as though I have to help him. I just… Well, clearly I went about it the wrong way down in the cell, but I’ve still got to try.”
“You’re right, he’s not the boy you grew up with,” Ronnie replies cautiously as he picks up a sheaf of paper from his desk and holds them loosely in his hand. “I’m not saying you should take a look at these because they don’t make for pleasant reading, but his record speaks for itself. It’s only a matter of time before he goes down for a long stretch or, worse, ends up dead.”
Snatching the papers out of Ronnie’s hand, I glare at him and throw the records on the desk without looking at them. “He just needs help, that’s all,” I mutter, sounding even to my own ears defensive. “Help that, damn it, he should have got years ago. I know he’s not a completely innocent party and that he’s done a lot of wrong, but it’s not all his fault. At the risk of sounding like a social worker or a counsellor, I think there still has to be a spark of good inside him somewhere and I owe it to him to do what I can to find it. I… I just owe it to him, okay?”
Turning a deaf ear to Ronnie’s sighed use of my name and feeling as though, having made it this far, I have to get everything out, quickly talk over the top of him. “Not long before Tommy ran away the four of us were kicking a football around in the street when, showing off for some girls walking past, I kicked the ball too hard and sent it flying through Mrs Pankhurst’s front window. Knowing that my father was yet again… between jobs… and that he’d do his nut over the damage, Tommy took the blame without either a word to any of us or a second’s hesitation. He even accepted Mrs Pankhurst’s bollocking and, although I still don’t know where he got the money from, paid for the replacement window. It mightn’t sound like much but it saved me a belting and for that alone I feel as though I owe him…” Trailing off, I rub my temples again and shoot Ronnie a beseeching look. “While I was down in the cell, before I made the stupid mistake of mentioning Nugent, he’d started to reminisce about games we used to play and… call me deluded if you like, but I like to think that means there’s still some of the old Tommy in there somewhere. He might be a lost cause and, okay, I’ll admit that I’m not expecting a miracle or anything like that, but I still feel as though I’ve got to try.”
“Hey, Matt. Promise me something, will you?”
“What?” I finish doing up the last button on my coat and glance at Ronnie expectantly as he waits for me by the doorway.
“Don’t go looking for Tommy,” he states flatly, his expression as grave as I’ve seen it all day. “I mean it, Matty. Just be… sensible.”
Shooting Ronnie a sour look, I grab my scarf from the coat rack and wind it loosely around my still tender neck. “I thought we’d been through this already,” I mutter, stalking past him on my way into the corridor. “I’m not deluded enough to think I can save him or that I even have much of a chance of convincing him to go into rehab, but I owe it to him to give it a go. I know you probably think he’s a lost cause, but I couldn’t live with myself if he disappears again without me even trying to help, so… Just drop it, will you?”
“I said don’t go looking for him, not abandon him,” Ronnie retorts as, catching up to me, he closes his hand around my arm and exerts just enough pressure on it to get me to slow my pace. “Assuming he scurried straight from here back to the address he gave, that would put him on the Pembury, yeah?”
“So the Pembury isn’t somewhere you want to find yourself after dark.”
“Actually, I think you’ll find that the Pembury Estate isn’t somewhere I particularly want to find myself even in brilliant sunlight.”
“I’m being serious.”
“So am I.”
Coming to a stop at the top of the stairs, I pull my arm free of Ronnie’s grip and turn to face him. “Come on, spill. Whatever it is you’re wanting to say just come out and say it.”
“I just want you to give me your word that you won’t head to the Pembury looking for Tommy,” Ronnie responds, fixing me with his best no-nonsense look. “I mean it, Matt. I know you want to help him and I’m not getting into that, I just don’t want you straying on to the Pembury. Not without backup. The place is a powder keg at the moment and the fear is it could ignite at any time.”
“The place is a shit hole,” I correct, shrugging. “Given that you live near it you know that even better than I do.”
Ronnie echoes my shrug and begins to walk down the stairs. “And right now it’s even worse than normal. You know that hit and run on Clarence Road last week?”
“The one where the sixteen year old was mowed down by a Subaru Impreza?”
“That’s the one,” he confirms, glancing over his shoulder to make sure that I’m behind him. “The victim, Jamar Sibonda, died from his injuries yesterday and, wait for it, he was a member of the London Fields Boys.”
“Oh.” Ronnie’s fears now beginning to make a lot more sense to me, I groan. “Don’t tell me, let me guess… The driver of the Subaru was from a rival gang…”
“Not just any gang, the Pembury Boys, the current arch enemies of the LFB.”
“Shit.” I swear under my breath and get in step with Ronnie as we walk through the custody area. “So they’re likely to be revving up for a fight.”
“Oh, it’ll be on,” Ronnie sighs, opening the door into reception and gesturing me through it first. “That I can guarantee. It’s just that no one knows when. As thick as most of the gang members are they’re getting more cunning when it comes to mounting their attacks and this has just put the entire estate on knife’s edge. It could, as I’m sure you can well imagine, blow at any moment, and that’s why I don’t want you anywhere near it. Especially not on your own. I’m not saying you can’t handle yourself, more that… Well, I just know I’ll sleep better tonight knowing you’re nowhere near it.”
Suitably placated by Ronnie’s explanation as to why he doesn’t want me going after Tommy tonight, I smile and once again get in step with him as we make our way to the front door. “Thanks for the heads up,” I reply, “but given the reaction I’ve already had from him today I think I should probably just leave him be for a while anyway. Besides…” Opening the door and nearly being blown over by the gust of freezing wind that immediately blows in, I gesture out at the cold, wet evening and pull a face. “It’s cold and horrible enough during the day at the moment, so why on earth would I want to go out in it at night if I don’t have to?”
Pembury Estate, Hackney, Greater London E8 1
Monday, 21 February 2011
It’s a small thing, insignificant really, given what I’m in the process of doing, but I take a small degree of comfort from the fact that I never actually lied to Ronnie.
When we left the station together five hours ago the last thing on my mind was going out to look for Tommy. Despite knowing that I had to be able to find a way to help him, the incident in the cell had been enough of a warning sign to let sleeping dogs lie for the time being and, even before Ronnie had said anything about the lurking threat of gang warfare, the idea of hunting him down on the Pembury hadn’t appealed in the slightest anyway. If anything, still reeling both from Tommy’s unexpected reappearance in my life and the fact he’d nearly knocked me out, the best I thought I’d be able to come up with was sweet talking a social worker into finding him and doing all the – hard – work for me. I told myself that it was at least something.
Foolishly though, even though I tried telling myself not to, that it wasn’t going to achieve anything, I took the print out of Tommy’s arrest records home with me and, willpower clearly not being my friend today, read every word of them. Glossing over his actually incredibly long and somewhat repetitive list of charges, which admittedly in itself was hard, what I focussed most on from my reading was his apparent habit of simply up and disappearing every time he’d had a run in with the police that didn’t result in an automatic jail term. In the twenty years since I’d last seen him he’d been arrested in more towns and cities across the country than I’d even visited and most of them he’d left, usually with the police still wanting to question him further, without so much as a backwards glance, never to return again.
And it’s because of this, this practice of cutting and running whenever the heat was applied, that I’m now here – where I never actually promised Ronnie I wouldn’t be – on Pembury Road and am about to leave the relatively safe confines of my car and head into the estate proper. It would be a lie to say I want to be here, but what else can I do? I honestly don’t feel as though I have any other choice. If Tommy disappeared before I’d been able to at the very least make my attempt to get through to him, then…
Well, as bad as walking alone onto the Pembury during the middle of the night is, losing Tommy without getting to see him again would be worse. It might sound melodramatic, and I’m not for a second convinced of the fact I’m thinking with my head instead of my heart (I wasn’t able to do anything to save Pete, so now I’m fixating on Tommy instead?), but it really is just the way I see it. I have to see him again and I have to try to get him to see he’s better than that of the life he’s embraced.
Knowing that staying in the warmth of the car and relentlessly going over things in my head is only delaying the inevitable, I open the door and climb out. As expected the chilly night air goes straight through me and, after locking the car, I lift my hood up, jam my hands in my pockets and set off at a fast trot. While it won’t matter a damn if I find myself coming under any unwanted attention, I’m wearing a thick Adidas hoodie over jeans and trainers in the hope of better blending in but, instead of feeling carefully disguised though all I feel is cold, stupid, and as though I may as well just have a target painted on my back anyway. Stock standard, all but government-issue Mondeo, too clean clothes, obvious hint of nerves, eyes darting from left to right and back again – basically I’m sure I look as out of place as I feel.
I’m here now though and the reason behind it hasn’t changed, so…
My fingers brushing over my mobile, I contemplate, for all of a split second, phoning Ronnie and asking him to join me. He only lives five minutes away and I know, despite it being close to midnight and that he’d have to hit me with a lecture first, that he would, but not wanting to disturb him I push the thought out of my mind and simply concentrate on looking for the ground floor flat Tommy gave as his address. The estate is quiet, possibly even too quiet, and I can feel invisible – or perhaps that should be imaginary – eyes on me as I make my way along. Curtains don’t twitch because most of the flats don’t even have them and I don’t catch sight of so much as a shadow of life, but I still know they’re there, watching, monitoring and reporting to the created-by-fear hierarchy. Apart from a group of hot hatches and their owners loitering in the parking lot of the Kingsland Shopping Centre and blasting far too loud rap music though I’ve seen no sign of gang related activity or even for that matter, life. Fear and self preservation rule the Pembury Estate and the residents are in – hiding – lock down.
Suddenly, to hell with good intentions I just want to be home in bed like any other sensible person, wanting this over and done with, I spot the number of the flat I’m looking for and march up to the front door. Hammering on it forcefully causing the door to swing open onto an empty, rubbish filled corridor, I step cautiously into the dimly lit flat and immediately wish that I hadn’t. The stench, think the filthiest public convenience you’ve ever encountered and then double the repulsion factor, is even worse than decomp and I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone could actually live with it. It’s so bad in fact that I’m in the process of reopening the front door in order to let some very much needed fresh air in when a man silently appears from out of the nearest room and stalks up to me.
Dressed, despite the interior of the flat being only marginally warmer than outside, in an unbuttoned black shirt and once white boxer shorts that are now the colour of long abandoned dishwashing water, the man slams the door shut and – clearly having no issues with personal space – positions himself directly in front of me. The only light in the place seemingly coming from candles in the room he’d materialised from, I can’t see the man clear enough to be certain of his age and put him at between twenty-five and thirty. With his dirty, obviously dyed black hair, hollow, far too bright eyes and wiry frame though he could easily be either younger or older and I tell myself that I’d be wise not to underestimate him. Street smart, high as a kite, and I’m an uninvited, unwelcome guest in his hovel.
Hindsight being as much of a bitch as always, perhaps I should have put a little effort into seeing who else was known to be living at this address before blithely calling around.
“Who the fuck are you?” the man demands in a thick Northern accent as, just to reiterate his delusions of dominance, he jabs his finger into my chest.
Knowing that I have to get him to view me, if nothing else, as an equal if I’m to have a chance of getting any further, I smack his finger away and, standing up to my full height, look him impassively in the eye. “I’m here to see Tommy.”
“Tommo ain’t said nuthin’ about anyone comin’ around,” he retorts, taking half a step back but still glaring at me with both obvious suspicion and dislike.
I smile balefully and, making a point of giving him a shove as I pass, step further into the corridor. “I didn’t know I needed to make an appointment.”
“Fuck you,” the man sneers. Giving me an absolutely filthy look, he moves over to the doorway and calls out, “Hey, Tommo! There’s some wanker here to see you.”
Stepping out of the room as silently as the man did a moment ago, Tommy smirks as he looks me over and slowly shakes his head. “He’s not just any wanker, Chas,” he murmurs, pulling his friend close and, in what could be read as a proprietary display, draping his arm around his scrawny shoulders. Clad only in jeans and with his eyes as drug bright as Chas’, it’s suddenly only all to clear to me what I’ve interrupted and I mentally congratulate myself for my crap timing.
“What’s that supposed to mean, huh?” Chas queries before sniffing in a way that would do a three year old proud and wiping his nose on the sleeve of his shirt. “He sure don’t look like anythin’ special.”
His eyes gleaming with malicious intent, Tommy leans down and after – all for the benefit of his audience of one – languidly licking Chas’ ear, whispers loudly enough for me to hear, “He’s a copper.”
Chas, as Tommy had no doubt hoped, reacts to this unexpected snippet of information as though he’d just heard my true claim to fame was that of a blood thirsty serial killer and suddenly makes a run for the front door.
Stopping him, although I don’t really know why, by quickly shifting in front of him and placing my hand on his shoulder, I look over at Tommy and sigh. “Nice reveal,” I mutter. “Ever thought of a career in show business?”
“Fuckin’ copper! Lemme go!” Squirming free, Chas scurries back to Tommy and tugs agitatedly on his arm. “Tommo? What are we waitin’ for, huh? We gotta get out of here and...”
“I’m not here on police business,” I interrupt as, ignoring Chas’ increasingly plaintive lamentations, I keep my gaze focussed on Tommy. “I’m here as a friend.”
“Fuck you! Don’t listen to him, Tommo. He’s only here to stitch us up and…”
“It’s alright, Chas, I can handle him.” Meeting my eyes, Tommy gives a slight nod and tilts his head in the direction of the room they’d come out of earlier. “Why don’t you just go upstairs and get the bed warm for me, huh?”
“Go on. Having done it already once today, I can handle him.”
Giving me a truly evil look as he reluctantly shifts away from Tommy, Chas mutters, “Just fuckin’ get rid of him as quick as you can,” before stomping up the stairs and disappearing.
“I know it’s nothing to do with me,” I murmur in an attempt to lighten the mood as I follow Tommy into the room, “but I can’t help but think you’ll be needing more than the lovely Chas to get the bed warm.”
Flopping down onto a dirty looking beanbag, the room’s only piece of furniture, Tommy leers and rubs his crotch. “You offering?”
Accepting that I well and truly walked into that one but refusing to rise to the bait, I slowly look around the room and don’t answer. Apart from the beanbag and a large plasma television sitting propped up against the wall on the floor, the only other items in the room are about twenty or so lit candles of various sizes and the effect is more eerie than anything else. It’s also cold and I don’t know how Tommy can just be lounging there as though there’s absolutely no reason he can think of to be anything but perfectly content with his lot.
“Oh well, your loss,” Tommy comments with a laugh as he laces his fingers behind his head and stretches. “So, Devlin, tell me when you developed a taste for it.”
“Developed a taste for what?”
“What?” I scowl at Tommy and, not knowing what else to do with them, fold my arms across my chest. Things aren’t going well and I’d be a fool to try to kid myself otherwise. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s just that you’ve already had one beating today, and here you are back for another one.” Tommy laughs again and shrugs. “I don’t know, I’d have thought after all the times your old man laid into you that…”
“I’m not afraid of you,” I snap, cutting Tommy off and, wanting to make my point, walking over to the beanbag and looking down at him, “so cut the act.”
Jumping to his feet, Tommy gives me a shove and goes over to lean against the wall by the window. “It’s not an act,” he retorts sullenly, “and if you think I’m going to thank you for not pressing charges you live in an even bigger fantasy world than I originally thought.”
“The world I live in is the real world,” I reply with a heavy sigh, “and I’m not here about this afternoon. That’s in the past and doesn’t ever have to be mentioned again.”
“Then why are you here, Matty?” Tommy queries, giving me a suspicious look. “Surely it’s not just to enjoy my hospitality.”
“I meant what I said earlier about wanting to help you,” I respond, biting back a sigh of relief at having finally being able to get out the real reason for my visit. “That’s all. I was afraid that you were going to leave the area before I got the chance to see you again, so… Here I am. Not as a cop, but as someone you were once friends with and who’s still your friend.”
“And again with the holier-than-thou bullshit,” Tommy scowls. “Fuck you, Matty. I don’t need your help.”
Shrugging, I gesture around the room and pull a face. “I beg to differ. Look around you, Tommy. You can do…”
“Is that all you’ve really got to say? Fuck you, fuck you. It’s boring.”
“And so are you!” His levels of agitation and annoyance clearly increasing, Tommy shakes his head and begins to pace around the room. “For fuck’s sake, Matty, do I come into your boring life and try to change it? No. I don’t. So what makes you think you can interfere in mine, huh? It might not meet your lofty standards, but so fucking what? It’s my life, not yours and I’m fine with it.”
“You’re better than this,” I retort, the exasperation I’m feeling in respect to how badly this is going coming through in my voice and causing Tommy to both stop his pacing and glare at me through narrowed eyes.
“Fuck off back to the nick, Matty,” he hisses, both hands curling reflexively into fists as he fights to control his temper. “Just get it through your thick skull that I don’t want your fucking help. I’m happy being a lost cause and, news flash for you, I don’t want to be found. So… Just get out of here before we both regret it.”
Logic quite literally screams at me to listen to him, to quit while I’m still in one piece but, my reasons for being here in the first place not having changed, I take a deep breath and decide to make one last attempt to stand my ground. “Listen, Tommy, I know things went to shit when…”
“You don’t know any fucking thing!” Tommy shouts, slamming a balled fist into the palm of his other hand and, as though he doesn’t trust himself, backing further away from me. “Just drop it, Matty. You don’t want to be doing this.”
He’s right, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to listen to either sense or threat. I’m a police officer, I’m trained in situations like this, and I’m still firmly convinced I’ve got right on my side. “Tommy, please,” I murmur, holding my hands out in an open, placating gesture. “I know it didn’t happen to me, but…”
“Shut up! Just… Shut. The. Fuck. Up!” Something snapping in Tommy, he spins on his heels and, with a truly menacing look on his face, grabs me by the front of my top. “I warned you, Matty…”
Realising – far – too late that I’ve pushed too far and that I may now actually be in trouble, I break free of Tommy and, all the time keeping a careful watch on him, back towards the door. “I… I’m sorry, okay? I never meant…” Too focussed on watching Tommy, I’m not aware that Chas has returned to the room until I back into him and he grips his hands tightly around my shoulders. Trapped, and trying hard to fight mounting panic, I will myself not to struggle and – training, remember all the training – try to catch Tommy’s eyes. “Tommy… I made a mistake, okay? I can see that now and I’m sorry. Just… Let me go and I’ll leave.”
“It’s too late for that,” Tommy whispers, looking through me to Chas as though I’m not even there and giving an almost imperceptible nod. “You shouldn’t have come here, Matty. I could forget with Chas here but, you, you just keep bringing the memories to life.”
“That was never my intention,” I reply as, to my relief, Chas removes his left hand from my shoulder. “You’ve got to believe me. I wanted to help, not… reawaken bad memories.”
“You have no fucking idea what it’s like,” Tommy murmurs. “Just no fucking idea. I’m sorry, Matty, but…” Trailing off, he gives another nod to Chas who suddenly and without warning jabs a hypodermic syringe of God alone knows what through the fleece of my jacket and directly into my arm. Its effects being all but immediate, my knees buckle and, as a heaviness descends over me and I slump to floor, the last thing I hear before everything goes hazy is…
“… but I can show you.”