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It’s not every day that you see some old granny crushed to death under a baby grand piano, and I’m truly grateful for that. I really am. But the even bigger shock was that this woman – a complete stranger – would be coming back to haunt me in the days to come. Not in a spooky, walking-through-walls kind of way but something a lot more real and far more dangerous.
The inevitable small crowd had gathered round on the pavement to have a good gawp, of course, and not one of them was lifting so much as a finger to get the poor cow out from under the wreckage. Probably too late anyway. All that was visible of her was her blue rinse and one arm of a slightly less blue housecoat.
Two blokes in orange overalls were standing a few feet away from the ghoul brigade and staring up at a second-floor window of the four-storey apartment block. There was some kind of winch arrangement just above the window with about ten feet of rope dangling from it. At the bottom of the rope, half a dozen strips of webbing swayed gently in the breeze. Best guess? The two blokes in Guantanamo jumpsuits had been delivering or removing the joanna, and the old biddy had been standing right underneath it when the harness snapped. Wham, bam, and raspberry jam.
I’m not a great one for too much of the blood and gore, as it happens, so I carried on up the opposite side of the street without breaking stride. Second turning on the left and glad to see the BMW in its usual spot and with all its wheels still attached. Not that this is the sort of area where even the Rottweilers go round in pairs. Far from it, in fact, and I’ve got the mortgage repayments to prove it. On the other hand, leafy suburbia is exactly the type of place that some of the thieving little ne’er-do-wells like to target in the hope of richer spoils. Well, they can count me out on that score for a start ’cos I’m totally bloody skint right at this moment, although I’m expecting my fortunes to improve quite dramatically in a few short hours from now. Unless, that is, Alan and Scratch have made a complete bollocks of things, which, based on past experience, is not at all beyond the realms of possibility.
I took the rolled-up copy of The Times from under my arm and dropped it into a bin on the corner of the street, noticing that I’d built up quite a collection since it had last been emptied. Lazy bastards. It’s not as if they don’t get a shitload out of me in Council Tax.
I fished the plastic clicker thing out of my suit jacket and scored a direct hit on the Beamer’s rear window, causing the usual clunking sound as the doors unlocked, and the hazard lights flashed. What do they call them? Smart keys, isn’t it? Not so bloody smart the time when the battery ran out on the stupid piece of crap and locked me out until I remembered the strip of metal inside it that worked like some kind of pretend key. Late forties hardly qualifies me as one of those grumpy old gits who’s constantly moaning on about how much better everything used to be in their day, but you knew where you were with a proper key, didn’t you? Smarmy gimp at the showroom told me this was a top-of-the-range BMW and I couldn’t have a proper ordinary key even if I paid extra. Told me if I was dead set on having a car with a key, ‘Perhaps sir might want to consider a second-hand Morris Minor instead.’ Cheeky twat.
I climbed in behind the wheel, plonked the briefcase on the passenger seat and tossed the rolled umbrella over into the back. Haven’t needed it for days now, but it helps me look the part, that’s for sure.
I fired up the engine. Nice purr. Almost worth the obscene amount of cash I had to fork out every month just for that sound. Carla would have had a blue fit if she knew I even had a Beamer, never mind that I was already way behind on the payments. As far as she was concerned, all we’d got was a four-year-old Honda Civic that spends most of its time sitting in the driveway. Still, there’s a fair old bit that Carla doesn’t know, and I’m definitely aiming to keep it that way.
I deliberately walked straight past the shop without so much as a sideways glance and stopped in front of the next one. The plan was to pretend to be checking out the contents of the window display while I listened for any undue noise. But then I realised I was staring at a window that had been completely blanked out and remembered it was one of those sex shops – private shops, they call them nowadays – so I carried on to the hairdresser’s next door. Not much to see here either except for a bunch of women getting their weekend hairdos done. Better not hang around here too long or one of them might clock me for a peeping tom with a shampoo and blow-dry fetish and call the cops.
I couldn’t hear what I’d been listening out for from this distance, so I doubled back to the shop I’d ignored and took the key out of my pocket. A proper key. Still no noise out of the ordinary, so I shoved the key into the lock and turned it. Except it wouldn’t. Turn, that is. I tried the handle, and the door swung open with the slightest of creaks. Christ almighty, the bloody idiots hadn’t even bothered to lock it.
Once upon a time, the shop had been a gents’ outfitters, but it had gone bust months ago. Presumably, the modern world hadn’t any need for gents’ outfitters any more, or maybe there just weren’t enough gents left to be outfitted. Either way, I’d taken out a short lease on the place a few weeks ago in the name of a bogus company I’d set up specifically for the purpose. Not that I ever had any plans to run it as a shop, of course. God, no. I had something else in mind altogether, and this was going to make me a whole lot richer than flogging a bunch of ties and the occasional suit.
The light was dim inside the shop, partly because I’d had the door and window completely obscured with sheets of newspaper – from the copies of The Times I hadn’t binned – and partly because the air was so thick with dust, you could have grown spuds in it.
Better get out of these togs sharpish or Carla will go into meltdown if she has to take another suit to the dry cleaner’s.
I ducked down behind the counter that butted up at right-angles to the window and pulled out a bulging carrier bag. I was just about to take off the suit jacket and lay it on the counter top when I spotted the half-inch layer of dust that had settled on it. I scanned the rest of the shop for somewhere I could temporarily deposit the jacket, but apart from a few shelves bolted to the wall and also covered with dust, there was nothing. Not so much as a hanging rail with a bunch of coat hangers that must have been here when the gents’ outfitters was still up and running. Bailiffs must have cleared pretty much everything that wasn’t nailed down – and probably quite a lot of the stuff that was, apart from the counter.
I considered my options for a couple of seconds. Not even for that long because there was only one. If I didn’t want the suit to end up making me look like a nuclear fallout survivor, I’d just have to put the overalls on over the top and hope to Christ I didn’t roast down there. So, out they came from the carrier bag – grease monkey green rather than Guantanamo orange – and I had them on and buttoned up to the neck in a flash. Well, not quite a flash exactly, on account of twice nearly falling flat on my arse when each shoe got snagged up in a trouser leg.
Making for the far corner of the shop, I noticed several pairs of footprints in the carpet of dust, leading in both directions between the front door and where I was heading. Buggers must have been in and out a fair few times since I left them here last night. They’d better not have been sat swilling ale in some club or other instead of getting on with the job in hand. The sound I’d been listening for earlier was clearly audible now and getting louder with every step I took, so they obviously hadn’t finished yet.
The swirling dust was getting even thicker too, most of it coming from the top of the metal spiral staircase that led down into the basement. These things are lethal at the best of times, never mind when you can hardly see a hand in front of your face, so I grabbed the handrail tight and took the steps one at a very steady time. At the bottom, I pushed through the heavy blankets we’d hung up the night before to muffle as much of the noise as possible, but they hadn’t created enough of a seal to stop some of the dust escaping.
My eyes had already begun to sting like crazy, and the air was almost unbreathable down here, so I whipped out my handkerchief and clamped it over my nose and mouth. I squinted through the haze and my streaming tears to see Alan sitting on the floor with his back against the wall nearest me and Scratch on his knees, drilling into the wall on the opposite side of the basement.
‘Bloody hell, you two,’ I shouted. ‘What if I’d been the cops? You hadn’t even locked the sodding door.’
But even Alan, who was only six feet away, didn’t hear me over the din of Scratch’s massive drill.
I yelled a second time and then went over to Alan and tapped him on the shoulder. Dozy sod nearly jumped out of his skin, and as his head spun round, his left hand flew up to his neck and he let out what sounded like a yelp of pain.
‘What’s up?’ I said.
He pulled down the paper breathing mask to expose the only part of his face that wasn’t encrusted with a thick film of cement dust. His lips moved, but I couldn’t make out a single word.
‘Knock it off a minute,’ I yelled at Scratch’s back.
Nothing doing, so I picked up a small piece of rubble and chucked it at him. Got him right between the shoulder blades, but whether it was the vibration from the drill or not, he didn’t even flinch. Another piece of rubble – a lot bigger than before – and this time he lowered the drill and turned to face me.
He pulled down his own mask, and you didn’t have to be much of a lipreader to make out the “fuck d’you do that for?” part of what he said.
I gestured to him to switch off the drill, and moments later, the sound of silence filled the basement with an almost eerie calm.
I looked back down at Alan. ‘So what is it?’
‘Done my bloody neck in, haven’t I?’ he said with an extra wince and giving his neck a bit of a rub, presumably to emphasise the point.
‘Again?’ I said. ‘You’re always doing your neck in.’
‘Bloody martyr to it, I am.’
Scratch snorted. ‘Martyr to being a lazy little bastard, more like.’
It was a remark that didn’t make much sense, but the gist was clear enough. And it was true. Alan would swing the lead any chance he got whenever any manual labour was involved. He was about the same age as me and probably a fair bit fitter. A couple of inches on the short side and built like a weightlifter. No great coincidence, of course, because that’s what he used to do in his younger days. Claimed that’s where his neck problems first started and why he had to give it up. But bad neck or not, there was work to be done.
I gave Alan a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, which sent up a fresh cloud of dust from his overalls, and went over to check on the progress.
‘What’s the story then?’ I said, stooping to get a good look at the hole for myself.
Scratch cleared his throat like he was trying to dislodge something the size of the piece of rubble I’d thrown at him. ‘Another half hour or so should do it, I reckon.’
The hole in the wall was roughly circular, a couple of feet in diameter and about the same deep.
‘It’ll have to be bigger than that if you’re gonna get through there,’ I said.
‘Off you go then, Max,’ said Scratch, and he laid the drill down and pushed himself upright.
Now, I’m about average height for a bloke, but Scratch has got a good head and shoulders on me and a physique that’s totally in proportion to his height. The man is bloody enormous, and what with the shaved head – a vain attempt to disguise the rapidly advancing baldness – and a busted nose, looks like a right thug that you really wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley. But that’s where you’d be wrong because Scratch wouldn’t hurt a fly. Not unless provoked. And if that happened, you – or the fly – would be in serious trouble. Come to think of it, though, the fly would probably be OK since it’s unlikely that Scratch would risk being within swatting distance of it in case he was allergic. For a guy of his impressive stature, it had always struck me as weird that he should have so many allergies. Whatever it was, if you could touch it, smell it or swallow it, it was odds on that Scratch would come out in a rash. Hence the nickname. Apparently, however, he didn’t have too much of a problem with cement dust.
‘Any spare masks?’ I said.
Scratch shook his head and took off his own. ‘You’ll have to use mine.’
It was already thick with caked-on dust and probably well past its usefulness, but I guessed it was better than a handkerchief, so I slipped it on and picked up the drill. Christ, it weighed a ton, and the vibration when I started in on the hole made my brain rattle. This was the first time I’d used the thing on account of having to get off home soon after we’d got everything set up the night before. Both being single, Alan and Scratch didn’t have a Carla waiting to give them an earful about being late for their tea, but I’d promised them I’d do my share when I came back today.
Mind you, what did Scratch reckon? Another half hour or so? Jesus, I doubted I’d last more than five minutes.
At bloody last. Finally there was light at the end of the tunnel – or at least an opening the size of my fist at the far end of the hole. Scratch’s “half hour or so” had turned out to be well over double that, even though we’d worked non-stop in shifts. Alan had moaned like hell all the while he was having his go, of course, but thanks to the din of the drilling, Scratch and I could hardly hear him.
‘Here, I’ll take over,’ said Scratch, presumably fired up with renewed enthusiasm now that the job was almost done.
Even so, I wasn’t about to object, and I gladly handed him the drill.
The work was a lot easier from then on with Scratch chipping away at the far end of the hole and pausing every so often so I could pull out the loose rubble or push it through the other side. Ten minutes later and the hole was about the size of my head. Ten more and it was big enough for me to get my shoulders through with a bit of wriggling. The dust began to clear, and my eyes swept across the pile of rubble in front of me.
Holy shit. What the—? Feet. Human feet. In shiny black leather. The sharp points pointing straight at me. Thin stiletto heels nearly six inches long. My gaze crept stealthily upwards, eventually reaching the tops of the black leather boots and the pale skin of a pair of thighs. Then more black leather with little straps and buckles at regular intervals. Twin bulges of white flesh trying to force their way out, partially obscured by forearms clad in long black gloves. A coiled whip in one hand being slowly and rhythmically tapped against the palm of the other. Thick, black leather collar studded with viciously long spikes. Glossy scarlet lips, pouting slightly. Black leather eye mask and a bob of gleaming black hair.
Jesus Christ, what was she doing here?
Panicked, I darted my eyes to left and right. Wood and metal contraptions everywhere with ropes or chains dangling from most of them. A wooden X-shaped frame with a man strapped to it, spreadeagled and totally starkers apart from a black rubber hood that covered his face and head completely. Red welts criss-crossed his massive man-boobs and equally enormous belly.
I switched my focus back to peering upwards at the pouting red lips and the black eye mask. But the lips were no longer pouting. Instead, they’d spread into a kind of lopsided, leering grin.
‘Who’s been a naughty boy then?’ said the lips, and there was a sharp “krakk!” as the business end of the whip struck the floor of what was pretty obviously not the vault of a bank.
END OF FIRST THREE CHAPTERS
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