Birdseye

By Paul R. Green

As the black limousine made its stately way off the wasteland the man watched through rheumy eyes as the three idiots began arguing and hitting each other once more. They obviously hadn’t seen him when they’d made their half-arsed check of the place on arrival at the bit of derelict land; no doubt dismissing his huddled, dishevelled shape as just another piece of detritus on the pile of rubble at the edge of the abandoned site overlooking the grey northern river.
He waited until the men had got back in their own car and driven off before moving, joints screaming as much through his meagre diet as his age. His movement startled a couple of black headed gulls that were checking the heap for whatever it is they looked for on piles of old bricks and timber, and the man jumped as they suddenly took to the air with hideous shrieks. He shuffled over to where the idiots had stood, and was happy to find a discarded half-smoked rollie, which he didn’t hesitate in retrieving with grimy fingers and bringing straight to his eager mouth.
He drew deeply on the fag-end, determined to glean as much of a hit as possible. The smoke filled his lungs and he coughed violently, before being forced to hauk out a disgusting wad of phlegm.
The second draw produced the same reaction, but he still went back for more, sucking at the tobacco until there was nothing left, his eyes looking along to where the cars had returned to the road and back to the city proper.
From where he’d watched in the rubble he hadn’t heard much of what the men were discussing, but he had seen the man who’d been retrieved from the boot of one car and transferred to the limo after having his feet encased in concrete. Or at least he thought he had; he often got confused these days. No; the splashes of hardening concrete and the discarded cigarette suggested that what he had witnessed was no hallucination.
He wondered what to do now. He was a smart man, or at least he had been once, and he knew that what he’d seen meant something, and that if it meant something it had power. His problem was that without knowing who these people were he didn’t know how he could use it. He decided to talk to Jesus.

***

His lungs were on fire as he walked up Dean Street’s arduous slope and he had to stop to catch his breath before attempting the steep stairs up toward the cathedral. He was thankful that there were few people about at this time on a Sunday morning, just the occasional couple – no doubt on a romantic weekend break – hand in hand as they headed down to the Quayside: or the odd straggler from last nights debauchery, looking almost as dishevelled as himself, though their clothes were much more stylish. None of them looked at him; not really. The couples always just happened to cross the road before coming to him, and the stragglers were too drunk or hungover to see anything but the two feet in front of them in their quest to find their way back to wherever it was they’d come from.
At the top of the steps he stopped again to cough up another wad of phlegm and try and get his breath back before making his way to an ornate doorway that stood across from the majestic grandeur of St Nicholas’ Cathedral. Above this particular doorway a grotesquely carved rabbit, black as coal with blood red fangs sat and stared with baleful eyes at all who crossed its path. The man smiled; he liked the gargoyle, remembering the first time his dad had shown him it, back in that other life. Beneath the rabbit, sitting in the recessed doorway, nursing a cheap plastic bottle of wine, was the man known locally as Jesus.
“Captain Birdseye!” Jesus shouted as he spotted him approaching. He hated the name; it being taken from his vague resemblance to an old advertising character. He hated it, but tolerated it all the same as he didn’t feel he deserved his other name; the name belonging to the man he was before now.
“What news on the Rialto?” Jesus stood and beckoned him over to the stand in the shade of a tree that stood in the cathedral grounds, offering him a drink as he drew closer.
The bottle buckled slightly with a plastic crackle as the man accepted it and took a hearty swig. The red wine was cheap, but welcoming. He licked his white moustache and beard, savouring the tiny beads of alcohol he found before he handed the bottle back.
“I’ve got some news to trade, but I don’t know who with. Thought you’d be the man to see.”
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” Said Jesus, spreading his arms wide as he spun around to salute the edifice behind him, before coming full circle to face the man known as ‘Birdseye’. “So ask away, my son. Ask away.”
“Dodgy bastard in a flash suit. Drives a limo; actually, a chauffeur drives it, but you know what I mean. Who is he?”
“And did this snazzily attired chauffeur driven gentleman of questionable birth wear anything distinguishable upon his feet?”
“Couldn’t see proper, like, but he might’ve been wearing them things gangsters wear. You know what I mean? Like socks, but that go over your shoes.”
Spats.”
“Aye, that’s them. Spats. He might have been wearing spats.”
“Their feet run to evil, And they hasten to shed innocent blood; Their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; devastation and destruction are in their highways. Isaiah.”
“Isaiah who?”
“I was quoting Isaiah. The man you’re referring to is Keith Lawrence, calls himself The Don. Trying to make a name for himself. Whatever you want him for I’d say forget it. He’s trouble.”
“A man trying to make a name for himself has enemies. I’ve seen something they might find useful. Who are his?”
Jesus gave the man a sorrowful look.
“You don’t want to get in between men like these, my friend.”
“Want’s got nothing to do with it. We don’t all have the faithful leaving donations on our doorstep.”
The man known as Jesus raised his arms in surrender.
“It would have been remiss of me not to say, that’s all. The path you choose to walk down is your own. So seeing as you seem to know your way, allow me to enlighten you. Now the Don is enjoying, what you might call, a bit of a purple patch at the moment. Since Jimmy the Vampire got put away a few months back things have been fairly quiet. Well, except for a few internal disagreements, that is.”
Birdseye took a seat on the low wall. He’d been hoping for more than this. He’d thought about contacting Jimmy the Vampire, but even if he wasn’t in the nick there was no way Birdseye was going to go all the way to Sunderland to try and find him; and the Vampire never came to Newcastle. He’d earned the nickname due to his refusal to cross the river for fucks sake!
“There must be someone.” Birdseye said.

“Look, mate, the only one who’s anywhere close to the Don’s level at the moment is Sister Mary, but she’s been savvy enough to stick with nicking motors in Hebburn.”
“How do I talk to her?”
Jesus sighed.
“I’ll set it up.”

***

Even the hum of the electricity station didn’t spoil his walk towards the meeting place by the Tyne. The sun was out, and for once there was no wind blowing up the river to chill his aching body. As he made his way to the car park off South Shore Road he went over what he planned to say to Sister Mary. He needed to play this smart, think about the long game, but it was hard when he was so accustomed to concentrating on where the next meal was coming from. He just had to make sure he got a good trade for the information, and not just settle for the first thing she offered. He also had to trade smart; no fags, no booze. He wanted a job, or if not that then at least the chance to prove himself an asset. He had skills. Useful skills to someone with ambition. Or at least his other self did. All he needed was a chance. That, a hot shower and a real bed for the night.
As he approached the rendezvous point he began to sweat. It wasn’t just the exertion from walking all the way down here; he was nervous. What if she laughed at him? Would she even come? If she sent one of her cronies would they be able to make a deal?
He grew short of breath and had to stop. He bent over and drew in air in an attempt to sort himself out. He forced himself to clear his head of all the negative thoughts, finding the song of a small bird in the nearby trees to focus upon and blotted everything else out.
He let out a long, slow breath as he straightened and calmly walked to the car park.
There was already a vehicle there; a black something expensive. He was no good with cars; and what was it with gangsters and black cars? They always showed the dirt up, especially on sunny days like today.
The car flashed its headlights and he made his way toward it, feeling like some kind of spy in one of those films he’d watched back when he was someone else. He instinctively went to the back window which was, of course, tinted.

As he stood waiting he saw his reflection properly for the first time in as long he could remember, and chuckled to himself – He really did look like Captain Birdseye!
The window descended with a subtle hum and his face was replaced by the occupant’s.
“I believe you saw something you shouldn’t.”
All the warmth of the day leeched from his body as he stared into the eyes of the Don.

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Concrete Plans

The wheels of the sturdy, black Range Rover crunched over the cracked concrete. At some point in the past this would have been a factory floor or a car park, but now it was an isolated patch of weed-strewn, broken stone overlooking the unfashionable end of the river Tyne. Two disturbed seagulls pounded their wings up into the cool, early- morning sky as the Range Rover turned. A parked car swept into view through the windscreen. An elegant, equally black BMW. Stood, leaning against this vehicle were two men. Both of them were wearing black suits.

One, Richie, was tall and slim to the point of skinny. He was cupping the final third of a tightly-rolled cigarette in his right hand and was busily sucking as much smoke into his lungs from it as he could in one go. His already thin cheeks were pulled in, adding a haggard look to his already scarred and aggressive features.

The other man, Little Lennie, could not have been more different. Shorter and incredibly fat. Had he turned around then the strip of additional material, salvaged from a second suit jacket and used to increase his jacket size beyond the proportions of ordinary men, would have been visible. His face was red with the exertion of having to stand and hold his own body weight up. It would have been unfair to say that he was as wide as he was tall, only because this was a state that he hoped one day to slim down to.
As the two men watched the Range Rover complete its tight arc, the hard-faced Richie stopped sucking at his cigarette long enough to look down at the shorter, younger, wider Lennie and nod acknowledgement at the automobile saying, “About fucking time.”

Little Lennie replied. “Aye, isn’t it.”

Little Lennie’s almost comedic name was an accident of traditional baby naming. Every firstborn male of a generation of the Rogerson family was called Lennie. The dad would then be known as Big Lennie, and the son as Little Lennie. The occasional male Rogerson who lived to become a granddad inheriting the title ‘Fatha’. So, as there were three generations of firstborn male Rogersons still alive, this led to the happy accident of a young man who weighed in at somewhere just under thirty stone being referred to as Little Lennie.

The Range Rover crunched to a halt. Ritchie flicked the dog-end of his cigarette away, took out a pouch and immediately started rolling another. As he did this the driver’s door of the Range Rover opened and out stepped a third, similarly dressed man. Similar in that his suit was the same make and colour, but the way he wore it certainly was not. Despite the fineness and expense of the suit, on this man it looked dishevelled. In fact, every bit of him looked dishevelled, from his scraggy blonde hair, through his drooping, dark eyes and all the way to his laceless, scuffed, black trainers. Some people wear overalls, whereas some people make whatever they are wearing look like overalls. This man was the latter.

Little Lennie approached him. “All right, Carl?”

The scruffy man scratched at his belly underneath the untucked right side of his shirt. “Aye, Lennie, nee bother.” Carl quickly shuffled around to the boot of the car, opened it and started unloading equipment. “I got everything, like. Got the lot.”

Lennie nodded. “Good, good.” He joined Carl at the back of the car. A click and a flare indicated that Ritchie had lit his next cigarette. Lennie surveyed the items that Carl was taking from the boot of the Range Rover. A large water carrier, a spade, a plastic storage box, a bag of sand, a pair of wellingtons, a bag of cement. “Was B&Q busy?”

Carl shrugged. “A bit, like. The tills are a nightmare now with that serve yerself shite. I didn’t kna where the bar codes were on the big bags, like, an’ I had to turn them ower aboot four times.”

“Did anyone clock you?” It was Ritchie. He had walked round to the side of the Range Rover, which he was now leaning on nonchalantly smoking.

Carl looked up at him. “Wey, some bird what works there helped me on the till bit, but that’s all. I telt her I was laying a patio, like, so no worries.”

Ritchie spat. He did not seem impressed, but he did not enquire further.

Little Lennie pointed to the pile of Carl’s purchases. “What’s with the wellies?”

“Eh?”

“The wellies.”

Carl was in the process of taking a cigarette out of the battered box he kept untidily in his shirt breast pocket. “Aye, Lennie, man. I thought aboot that, like. You’d missed them off the list.” Lennie just looked at him, as Richie approached and gave Carl his lighter to stop his frantic patting and checking of every pocket in his already crumpled suit. “The wellies, man. We need the wellies.”

Lennie asked, “Why?”

Carl rolled his eyes and looked to Richie for support. Richie’s face remained hard, as he merely held out his hand for the return of his lighter. Carl lit his cigarette and did so. He then turned back to Lennie. “Concrete wellies, man. We canna chuck a bloke in the river with concrete wellies on if we haven’t got nee wellies.”

Lennie laughed as he turned to Richie, who remained impassive. He said to Carl, “We don’t need wellies.” Carl’s left eye twitched slightly as he tried to work this out. Lennie explained. “Concrete wellies is a metaphor, man. A figure of speech.” Carl’s facial expression had not passed beyond confused. “If you tried to use real wellies, you wouldn’t be able to get enough concrete in. They’d be full of the guy’s feet. He’d pop straight back up again and be floating around like a shit in a Jacuzzi before we got as far as Gatesheed.” He looked again to Richie to join him in his mirth at Carl’s expense.

Richie, who simply flicked the dogend of this finished cigarette at the offending wellies, muttered, “Prick,” and headed towards the boot of his and Lennie’s BMW. Lennie continued explaining to Carl how they were to use the box to create a concrete block, which Carl couldn’t accept should be called wellies unless there was one on each foot. Richie reached the boot of the BMW and opened it. This boot was not filled with DIY equipment, but was filled with weakly struggling person. Richie reached in and hauled the person out, dropping him heavily on the broken stone ground.

The man groaned through his gaffa-taped mouth. He started to struggle slightly more energetically against his makeshift bonds – a set of roof rack straps pulled tight around his arms, body and legs through the use of a ratchet. Richie kicked him hard in the stomach, which increased his groans but lessened the struggling.

Lennie and Carl came to join him. The three men looked down at their trussed up captive for a few seconds before Little Lennie spoke. “The Don’s coming later. We’ll have to get sorted.”

Richie glared down at him. “Who did you say?”

Little Lennie wilted a little under Richie’s glare. He knew that less than an inch beneath the surface of that glare lay potentially uncontrollable, anger-infused violence. “Erm… Don. You know, Keith? The boss?”

“Boss?” Richie’s voice rose a little. “He’s not a proper fuckin’ boss. And you called him The Don. What’s that shit about?”

Lennie kept his voice deliberately low and calm. “It’s a joke. ’Cos his middle name’s Gordon, I say Don for short.”

Richie leant in, his nicotine breath assaulting Little Lennie’s face. “You said The Don.”

“Did I?” Lennie hurried on. “Aye, it was a mistake like. Just with him always going on about Mafia shit and that.”

Richie’s anger seemed to be deciding whether or not it was pacified by this response, when the two men were disturbed by Carl. “Hey fellas.” He had arranged all of the equipment, filled the water carrier from the river and was in the process of pouring some of the contents of the cement bag into the plastic storage box. “How much sand and cement do we need?”

Richie held his face close to Lennie for two more heartbeats, before straightening up and saying, “Aye, well. Divven’t forget, he’s not some fuckin’ Mafia gangster, he just thinks he is. He’s not even a proper boss.”

The two men relaxed slightly, and looked over to a now sweaty and even more untidy Carl. It was Lennie who responded. “You have brought enough stuff haven’t you?”

“Oh aye, I’ve got loads. But, like, how much of each.”

Little Lennie shrugged. “I dunno. Loads of cement and a bit of sand?”

Richie shook his head. “Nah. There’s proper amounts what you have to use for concrete.”

“Aw, reet.” Lennie turned to Richie. “So how much then?”
“I dunno.”

Carl was still stood, cement bag in hand, waiting for an answer before he poured more in. Lennie turned to him. “Why divven’t you know, Carl?”

Carl put the cement bag down. “It’s not me job, is it? I just get the shit and do the legwork, like.”

Richie was shaking his head slowly, blowing noisily out of his nostrils. “This is your job, Lennie, you should know.”

“Well how, I’ve never done any…”

“You should have fucking found out!”

“Right, right, settle.” Lennie was determined to keep Richie calm. “I’ll just Google it, man. Give us a second.” He took out his smartphone and keyed in a code. He looked at the screen. He held the phone as high above his head as he could. He waved it back and forth a little. “Aw, fuck. There’s nee signal.”

“For fucks sake.” Richie was clenching his hands in frustration.

Carl saw the danger of Richie’s anger, and held his hands out pacifyingly. “Divven’t fret man, Ritchie. Me uncle’s a builder. I’ll get his number, Lennie, you can ring him.”

Richie’s anger was diverted to Carl, who he approached, slowly, hands held forwards in tight, pugilistic fists. “Ring him? You prick. Have you got a fuckin’ clue what nee signal means?”

Lennie interjected. “Halfy-half.” He was determined to waylay Richie’s seething anger.

Richie stopped. “What?”

“Halfy-half. I’ll make the decision, it’s my job.” Raising his voice more assuredly to Carl. “Halfy-half, Carl.”

“Aye, righty-o.”

***
Three minutes short of two hours later and a third black car glided over the cracked concrete. It was long, slick and smooth. A Limousine. It dwarfed the other two cars. Little Lennie, Carl and Richie were sat on a masonry block at the edge of the concrete floor; Carl and Richie smoking cigarettes, Little Lennie eating a Caramac. The captive was lying a few metres away, his feet embedded uncomfortably in an almost solidified grey-brown lump setting in the plastic storage box. He was desperately trying not to cry having received a jarring punch to the jaw for his earlier sobbing.

All four watched the Limousine glide to a stop, and a uniformed chauffeur step out of the driver’s door. He moved to the back door and opened it. From the angle at which the three non-captives sat, all they could see was the foot of the occupant beneath the door as it stepped out of the car. A brown wing tip, covered by an immaculate white spat, at odds with the dusty, broken concrete beneath.

“What the fuck? Look at them poncey shoes.” Richie muttered through an exhalation of acrid smoke.

Little Lennie was chewing noisily. “Aye, they’re lush aren’t they?”

“Eh? Fuckin’ rubbish.”

The shoe had been joined by its opposite number, as the occupant slowly exited the car to assess the situation.

Lennie swallowed. “No, man, no. They’re classics. Apparently they’re real gangster shoes. He bought them at an auction in one of them Speakeasy bars in Vegas.”

“What?”

“Speakeasies. They’re like illegal whisky dens from the thirties or something. Ran by real Mafia.” Little Lennie pressed on, despite Richie’s obviously unimpressed look. “They’re real Mafia shoes from a real Mafia boss in Vegas. He paid a fortune for them.”

The man from the back of the Limousine had walked round to the captive by now. He was in his late forties, balding and slightly overweight. His tailored, pin-stripe suit was immaculate, complete with button-hole flower and pocket square that matched both his tie and socks. He leant over the captive, inspecting his face, before turning his attention to the contents of the plastic box. He sucked his teeth noisily before turning to walk towards the three men.

Richie whispered to Lennie. “He might have paid a fuckin’ fortune, but it doesn’t mean they’re real and it still doesn’t mean he’s a real boss.”

Keith, The Don in his own mind, stood before them. He reached into his inside pocket and drew out a small, silver cigarette case. He opened it and removed a thin cigar. He replaced the case and was about to reach for a lighter when Richie jumped up, holding his own cigarette lighter out before him. It flared up. “Here you are, boss.”

Keith lit his cigar on the proffered light, puffed out a mouthful of smoke and then spoke. His accent was Northeast, but not broad, and he kept his voice at a low, gruff whisper. “Well, you got the right guy.”

Lennie stood up. “Aye, boss, we got him.”

“No complications?”

“No, none.”

Keith turned to look over his shoulder at the terrified captive, shaking in his metaphorical wellies. As he looked at him, Keith asked over his shoulder, “What mix did you use?”

Lennie responded. “What?”

Keith’s head turned slowly back to the three men. “The concrete. What mix did you use?”

It was Carl’s turn to jump up. “Halfy-half, sir. Just like what Lennie said, like.”

Keith’s hand, holding the cigar, stopped halfway to his mouth. “Halfy-half?”

“Aye, sir.”

Keith’s eyes moved to Lennie. His voice rose slightly in volume. “Halfy-half?” Little Lennie nodded. Keith continued. “Why, for the love of God, would you tell him to use halfy-half?”

Lennie shrugged. “I dunno. I just… you know… well I didn’t…”

Keith’s jaw set. “You should have found out. Halfy-half? You imbecile. I mean, there’s not even any shingle in that mix. It’s barely a mortar. Everyone knows, concrete is one part cement, three parts sand and three parts shingle. What sort of idiot wouldn’t know that?”

Richie, Lennie and Carl looked sideways at one another. Then Carl spoke. “Well, like, does it matter but? It’s setting hard, like.”

“Matter? Does it matter? Of course it bloody matters!” Keith exploded. “Concrete wellies. The clue is in the bloody title – concrete. Why concrete? Because it’s heavy, durable and waterproof. You’ve mixed a frigging mortar. It wouldn’t last five minutes at the bottom of the Tyne. I mean, the guy will be popping up at Dunston and be bobbing round like a turd in a hot-tub before the month’s out.” He flung his cigar at Lennie, where it bounced off harmlessly. “One job! I ask you to do one job. What’s going on with you youngsters that you don’t even know how to mix cement? You’ll be telling me you can’t paper a wall or replace a carburettor next.” Carl opened his mouth to speak, but Lennie prodded him into silence. Keith continued to fume at the world in general, pacing back and forth in front of the three men. “Concrete wellies. Bloody concrete. They haven’t even put in shingle!”

He stopped and turned to look again at the captive. He then shouted to the chauffeur. “Trevor. Get that guy in the back. And give him a bourbon, settle him down, I can’t be doing with that crying.” He turned back to the other three. “Help him, then. He won’t be able to lift that block of crap that you’ve produced on his own.”

The three men rushed forwards to help.

***
Little Lennie, Ritchie and Carl watched the Limousine glide out of the broken concrete square and up the dirt track away from the river. Carl turned to the other two. “D’yous reckon B&Q will give us the money back on them wellies?”

Richie punched him.

Good Luck Charm

by Alister Davison

The engine stops, and I savour one last breath of conditioned air, drawing it deep into my lungs as if it’s my last.

The way my luck is holding out, that may well be the case.

Got to admit, I thought I’d escaped. Getting to grips with a new routine hadn’t been easy, but it was worth the sweat and tears if it kept me away from prying eyes and meddling hands.

At least they were subtle about it. I’d just entered my apartment building, looking forward to getting started on the pile of books I’d taken from the library, when a figure stepped in front of me, blocking my way to the stairs.

I knew the procedure, it was one to which I’d bore witness many times. I placed the books on top of the mailboxes, turned around and put my hands behind my back. In silence, I was cuffed and gagged, a cloth bag placed over my head. It makes for an uncomfortable car journey, that’s for sure; my arms cramped an hour ago and my fingers have gone numb.

Still, at least I’m alive. For now.

Doors open – one, two, three – allowing stifling air to force itself inside. The car rocks as the other occupants get out. The two goons either side have been keeping me upright, so I fall to my left without their support, lying there like a fish long out of water.

It takes a couple of seconds for them to haul me out like a prize catch. I hit dirt, dusty and dry, the brightness of the day evident even through the hood.

It blinds me when they pull it off. Takes my eyes several seconds to adjust to the crystal blue sky, the Nevada sand crushed and compact, an equally dazzling reflection of the sun from up above. Sweat wicks from every pore, a combination of the oppressive heat and recognition of the brown wing tips a few feet from my face. The immaculate white spats that cover them are a startling contrast to my dusty Converse.

“Get him up.” The voice is soft, almost melodic, but the goons hurry to do as instructed, lifting me up by the armpits. I sway a little on my feet, which are the focus of my gaze as I try to orient myself, almost falling again as they remove the gag, cutting it with a switchblade that sparkles in the sunlight.

I work my jaw, up and down and side to side, but say nothing. There are moments when being discreet will keep a man alive; this is one of them. Instead, I stare down at my trainers.

The spats move closer, but the shadow stretches out to the side, as if it’s shying away from me. “Jimmy the Boy. We meet at last.”

Jimmy the Boy. I’m closing in on thirty and they’re still calling me that, as if I was the same punk kid that tried to pick Big Sal’s pocket all those years ago. Sal gave me a thick ear, then a home, followed by a life. Whenever I think of him, I wonder how he’d have felt about my running away.

I look up at the man who’s had me brought here. Immaculately dressed in designer suit, shirt and tie; even in this heat, there’s not a drop of sweat on him, as if he’s still in New York’s corridors of power. His only concession is a Stetson, which somehow shades his face in a way that makes his dark eyes seem to glow. He swipes a hand across the brim of the hat, cuff links glittering.

“You’ve taken some finding, which has incurred much expense, as well as some slight discomfort to yourself, but our employer deemed it necessary.” He leans closer, mint evident on his breath. “Now here you are.”

In the movies, right now is where the hero would say something cool. Me, it’s all I can do not to piss myself. I’ve heard of this man, who rose quickly in the organisation, graduating from henchman to right-hand in a few years. Guessing why I’ve been brought here, to the middle of nowhere, I look frantically for a shallow grave, but there’s no sign of anything except cooked, hard earth.

“We’re not here to kill you,” he says, as if he’s read my mind. “One more task, James, one that will truly free you from the Organisation, if that is what you wish.”

He reaches into his jacket, taking out two photographs. Only one is handed to me; a picture of a casino, façade covered in glittering lights.

“The Seers?”

Spats moves closer, arm over my shoulder like he’s my best friend. I don’t like contact at the best of times, so it’s an effort not to shrug him off. “I don’t know how you do what you do, son. Maybe it’s luck, maybe it’s some kind of Rain Man voodoo.”

“There’s a pattern in the cards,” I whisper as if I’m imparting a great secret. “Some see it everywhere, in everything, but with me it’s just the cards.”

“I’m only interested in the results.” He’s so close, that minty breath is sickening. “Let me show you this, just in case you’re not fully motivated.”

The second picture is that of a woman and a toddler, at play in a park. Sal’s niece and her son, five years old.

“Call it added incentive.” Spats steps away.

His words are unnecessary; implying the threat has always been enough. There are things words don’t have to say, whereas my acknowledgement will save lives. I may not have seen them for years, but still; family is family.

I look away, see my reflection in a goon’s mirrorshades. Unkempt, tired, not the man I used to be, nor the one I want to be. One last caper, then out. Always tempting – how many times have I told myself just one more? – but now there’s no choice.

“All right. What do you want me to do?”

***

Win. And win big.

That’s my only thought as I stand at the entrance to the Seers Casino. The building’s lit up like a gold Christmas tree, the dancing lights creating a discotheque reflection in my polished shoes.

I straighten my tie, roll my shoulders and shoot my cuffs as I take the deepest breath of my life. This isn’t going to be easy. I’m happy enough in these expensive clothes, wearing them like a knight would a suit of armour, but my lucky tooth and silver pen are back home, and the only routine I’ve been able to go through is the folding of the handkerchief in my jacket pocket.

Three times. First with a triangle of silk tongue poking from the pocket’s mouth. The second fluffs it out, so it blooms like a white rose against the deep navy (my lucky colour). Finally, I fold it square again, place it to form a white stripe across the top of the pocket.

There. I’m ready.

To win, as instructed. Win big, like nobody in the Seers ever has. The place prides itself that nobody’s ever hit the jackpot enough to do it any damage. It’s completely independent from any criminal control; no group takes a skim, no single person is paid to look in another direction from time to time. Clean, when there’s no such thing.

So, I tell myself, I must beat the unbeatable.

Here’s a new thought; if I don’t, people I care about will die.

That’s what’s on my mind as I step through huge sliding doors, catching the eye and the smile of a blonde in a golden bikini, a huge set of tail-feathers rising up behind her. She welcomes me to the Seers Casino; the lingering look we share makes it sound more than a customary greeting, but I’ve been fooled before.

Still, I must admit I can’t help liking what I see. Golden curls, eyes the colour of a summer sky, a brightness to them that puts the glitter and glitz of our surroundings to shame. If they’re truly the mirror to her soul, then I doubt it’s anything short of wonderful. Just as I’m feeling a mental connection, one that almost has me believing in love at first sight, a voice shatters the moment.

“Hey, Kitty! Kitty!”

Her smile slips for a fraction of a second. “It’s Katherine, dammit,” she mutters. Then, all is as before, bar the fat man in a tux with straining seams, shirt collar so tight it’s turning his round head into a purple grape. He’s a heart attack waiting to happen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what Katherine is wishing for right now.

She opens her mouth, but doesn’t get the chance to speak.

“What was I saying before? You can’t just stand there like a dummy. You’ve got to work it!” He sneers at me, the lascivious tilt of a time-served creep. “Am I right?”

I slip my hands in my pocket. “I was hoping this beautiful lady would accompany me to the tables. I could do with a good luck charm.” It’s no lie; being kidnapped has made this all a rush, my usual tokens foregone in favour of haste.

Katherine smirks, slipping her hand through the gap between my arm and my body. Her perfume is like a sweet narcotic, and her touch, far from unpleasant, sends a spark through me. I feel good, like I could take on the world, even turn around and walk out of here a pauper. With her at my side, I’d be satisfied.

If it wasn’t for the whole death-threat thing, maybe I’d ask her.

We walk between rows of fruit machines, their single arms raised high like worshippers praising the gods of excess. An old woman pumps coins into one of them, while an even older woman hits the jackpot, leaping out of her seat as if she’s been healed by a miracle worker, coins spewing out into a plastic cup.

Katherine leans close to be heard over the noise. “What’s your game?”

Unable to decide if she’s asking me why I’m here or what I’d like to play, I give her answers to both. “Blackjack. I’m here to beat the unbeatable.”

She smirks at this, but I sense humour rather than disdain in her voice. “How does a private table sound?”

“I’m in your capable hands.”

Katherine guides me to the table. The croupier is a man as thin as the cards he deals, his construction all joints and angles. His clothes are expensive, tailored to fit like a glove, which doesn’t do him any favours.

He watches me sit. There’s a wide grin on his face, but still I feel like I’m being interrogated, examined for any tell-tale signs or ticks. There’s a moment of pressure in my forehead, like a flash of toothache, and his grin slips, quickly replaced by a smile as he starts rattling off the house rules.

They’re the same in most of these places, and I know them by heart. Still, I listen, eyes closed to take in every nuance of his voice. Sometimes, it’s the way people talk that give them away as much as a raise of the eyebrow or a rub of the wrist.

“All right,” he announces, opening a fresh deck of cards. “Let’s play.”

***

I’m an hour in, a few thousand up, when I first see it.

Nothing more than a glance, an exchange for only a fraction of a second, but I kick myself for not noticing it sooner.

I’m being played. Hustled at my own game. How, I don’t know, but I suspect this beauty at my side has something to do with it. Too good to be true, and I fell for it. I don’t know who I’m annoyed with more, her or myself. People’s lives are depending on me, and I let myself get distracted by Miss Tailfeathers here.

“I need a break.” I slide out of my chair and stride away, leaving the two of them. Let them stay in cahoots; I can move on, play another game.

Except I’m already deep in this one. The patterns are forming, and I can guess which cards will be next out of the shoe. I can do this. I have to do this, or people will die.

My heart pounds against my ribcage harder than a wrongful arrest. I lean against the wall and close my eyes, but all I can see is Spats’s face in shadow under that hat, eyes aglow as if he’s the devil himself. For all intents and purposes, that’s exactly what he is.

“You need to clam down.” I recognise Katherine’s voice, and the sincere concern within. Opening my eyes, I see she’s handing me a glass of water. “Drink this.”

I take a sniff, making sure it’s not vodka, then pour it down my throat. It cools all the way down to my core, but that fireball of irritation refuses to be put out.

“We need to talk.”

“About what? How you and your friend are taking me for a ride?”

Katherine looks from side to side. I’ve learned to read people, and she’s panicking. Genuinely afraid. “Not here.”

She walks away, not looking over her shoulder to see if I’m following. I do, and we end up at an inconspicuous door with a small keypad above the lock. Katherine closes her eyes, then keys in five digits; a turn of the handle, a wiggle of feathers, and we’re in.

The room is small, the size of an elevator, lit by a panel that glows in the centre of the ceiling. It’s very much empty, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts to descend into some underground lair.

“There’s something you need to know.”

***

If she didn’t look so sincere, I’d laugh. As it is, I summarise.

“So, you’re telling me the reason the Seers always wins is because it’s run by psychics.” Put like that, it sounds simple and rational. The rest of it, though… “And these psychics, you included, are from one of many parallel dimensions.”

Katherine rubs her forehead, eyes on me. “In a nutshell. That’s how I picked up on you, and your desperate need to win. You’re doing this for Sal; even though he’s gone, family is family, right?” She smiles now, and I swear the small room brightens. “Besides, there are some people in here who need to be taught a lesson.”

I’m disappointed. I’d thought, hoped, there’d be more to it than that. Despite my suspicions of betrayal, I still can’t help feel a certain attraction to her. I look down at my feet, saddened when I have no real right to be.

Her hand on my chin, that same frisson at her touch. She lifts, so I have no choice but to look into those summer sky eyes. “When this is all over, how about we stay together for a while, see how well we get along?”

I know how it works, that this could be an idea she’s planting inside my head like a seed, but I also know there’s more to it than that; Katherine is offering me a choice, not an ultimatum. Besides, it’s something I’ve been thinking of from the moment I clapped eyes on her.

I put my hand over hers, relishing the warmth of the contact. “Read my mind,” I say.

I’m expecting the mental equivalent of a burglar raking through drawers, but there’s no discomfort, barely any sensation at all other than a shiver up the spine, like you get when you’re being watched, only now it’s from the inside. She’s never been in here before, never manipulated me.

I push aside the relief to focus on the faith I have in her, myself, in anyone who’s willing to listen and help me save those who have been like a family to me when I deserved nothing. They had faith in me, all those years ago, and now it’s time to return the favour. What goes around comes around, a cycle of karma like the patterns I see when cards are being dealt.

Tears glisten in Katherine’s eyes. I swallow my own emotion; now that she’s not in my head anymore, there’s a void in there, one that didn’t exist until only a moment ago. It’s a mental impact that makes me sway, but she steadies me with her hands on my shoulders.

“It’ll pass.”

I almost don’t want it to, but I nod. “What do we have to do?”

Katherine smiles. “I’ve persuaded you to go back to the table. Given your outburst, you’ll be allowed to win. Not quite as big as you’d like, but big enough to be tempting when he says the three magic words.”

“He loves me?”

“No, but you will be screwed.” The smile becomes a grin. “That’s when I come in.”

***

Katherine was right. I’ve lost a few hands, but overall I’m doing well. Too well to be true, beyond even what I’d been expecting. To say I’m being hustled is an understatement; I’m close enough to a huge prize that I’ve attracted an audience of around a dozen, being willed on by each and every one.

Katherine remains at my side, thoughtful throughout. I catch her and the croupier exchanging looks now and again, but that’s to be expected.

Then, as if from out of nowhere, the croupier delivers the three words that could change my life.

“Double or nothing?”

My crowd ooh and aah, offering me conflicting advice at various volumes.

Have faith, I tell myself as I look at Katherine from the corner of my eye. I sit up, straighten my back, and smile.

“Let’s do it.”

***

The blue and white Mustang roared along the road, Vegas and that old life further behind with every passing second. Occasionally, the car swerved, riding the white line or the outer edge of the Tarmac that cut through the Nevada desert like an infected wound.

The driver looked in the mirror, wiping away the last of the make up with a tissue. She steered with her knees for a moment, placing a long dress over her shoulders and letting it shuck down to her waist. The bikini, she vowed, would be shed once she got to a motel.

Katherine saw the gleam of sun on metal a few minutes later. The Cadillac, exactly where James has said it would be.

Looking at the briefcase on the passenger seat, she felt a pang of regret. It faded as quickly as it had arrived; she’d done what she had to, and lies were inevitable. Such was life.

She slowed, pulling off the road so the trunk of the Mustang faced the other vehicle, drawing to a halt with a plume of dust. Ignition off, the car fell silent and the world felt bigger.

Katherine had predicted no trouble here, but it paid to be careful. Trust no one; that had been her mantra since coming to this Dimension in pursuit of a new life, one that was close around the corner.

No trouble, but it always paid to have a back up plan.

She picked up the case, along with a tyre iron she’d stowed under her seat, and opened the door. The day was a couple of hours old, so the heat was already bordering on the intense. Shoes on, she got out of the car, smoothing the dress down to her knees and cursing the high heels as she negotiated the lumpy terrain, coming to a halt at the back of the Mustang, placing the case on the trunk.

As the Cadillac’s doors swung open, Katherine let her makeshift weapon hang down, knocking it three times against the Mustang’s fender. The sound of metal on metal was reassuring, ringing out like a bell calling the faithful to prayer.

As she’d expected, the two goons came first. Men more muscle than brains, she knew they wouldn’t be the problem. No; any issues she was going to have would be with the owner of the legs that were now swinging out, spat-covered shoes planting themselves into the dust.

Their owner quickly followed, exiting the car in one fluid motion. He adjusted cuffs and tie as he approached, coming to a halt close enough so their conversation couldn’t be overheard.

“This is a surprise,” he said, lifting his head so the shadow of the hat slid from his face.

Katherine smiled as if she meant it. “It’s good to see you again, Monroe,” she lied.

No mental probe followed the untruth. Her former boss was being unusually respectful.

“You look well,” he said.

He did too, but there was no way she was going to be drawn in. Monroe was good – hell, he’d been one of the best until he’d Gone Native – and was well-versed in extracting information from even a brief conversation.

Katherine patted the briefcase, cutting to the chase. “This is what you want.”

“And Jimmy?”

That regret again, a weight on her shoulders, yet blessedly brief once more. “Do you care?”

Monroe lowered his chin, letting the shadow fall like a veil. He said nothing, but took a couple of steps forward, stretching out his arm. “I’ll take the money, Katherine.”

“I’ll need some guarantees first.”

He sighed, that of a teacher whose prize pupil has proved a disappointment. “Must we?”

“We must.”

“Very well. Take a look.”

Katherine met his gaze, pushing her ability into the void of his pupils, then further back into the mansion of his mind. There were many rooms, but Katherine knew exactly where to go. A door was opened and – in an instant – she saw it all.

The images flooded her mind, but she was adept at controlling them, sorting through them to pick out the most important. It was the reason the owners of the Seers had hired her, but now she was using the talent for herself, making it even easier to sift through and find the nuggets, the how and why of everything leading to this moment.

She saw the child, born a year after Monroe first came here almost three decades ago; the boy who had to be given away for fear he’d be killed or kidnapped by his father’s enemies; the ‘orphan’ who somehow made his way back into the fold – fate’s wheel spinning – although it would be another family that took care of him while his father looked on, knowing the truth could never be told; a young man with a gift who would make his father proud and, ultimately, make him play his own son as a pawn in his ambitious game.

Overwhelmed by it all, Katherine staggered, the tyre iron dropping to the ground. She would have fallen along with it if Monroe hadn’t taken hold of her arms, kept her upright. In that moment of weakness, she let her guard down, and a sliver of his own talent slipped through to dip into her mind. A brief invasion, but enough for him to ascertain the truth.

He could have killed her, right there and then, but all he did was laugh. “Clever girl. I’m pleased some of my lessons stayed with you. Who else knows?”

“Just you and I.”

He let her go, clapping his hands with obvious delight. “Bravo. Very well done, indeed.”

Katherine couldn’t believe it. “You’re pleased? After what I’ve done?”

“My dear, I’m pleased because of what you’ve done.” He leaned forward, whispering with minty breath. “I’m sure you’ll be very happy, but let me make a suggestion.”

He did so, and Katherine found a smile.

“Now, I’ll take what’s mine and be on my way.”

Katherine stepped aside, Monroe striding to the case and clicking it open. “Hmm,” he said, “never looks as much as it does in the movies, does it?”

“What will you do with it?”

“This will have done The Seers some damage, as predicted, and I’m sure they’ll be grateful of the added capital.” He grinned, teeth bright. “It’s a foot in the door, if nothing else.”

“And The Seers has been seen to lose. It’s possible to meet their challenge, so more will try.”

Monroe nodded, clicking the case closed. “It’s a shame to lose you, Katherine. I fear your previous employers wasted your talents somewhat.”

He moved to shake her hand, but the move was impossible due to the bundle of notes in it. “That should be enough to get you started.”

Stunned, she could only take the money and watch him walk away.

Monroe paused at the car door, looking at her over his shoulder. “Let’s be sure both our secrets stay hidden, eh?”

***

It took a few minutes for the Cadillac to drive out of sight, after which Katherine popped the trunk.

“We’re good?” James asked as he clambered out.

“Fifty grand good.” She offered him the bottle of water she’d taken from the glove box.

Katherine watched as he guzzled it all, letting some spill down his chin. Yes, she could see his father in him now, that same bright gleam in the eye.

“So where do we go from here?” he asked.

Katherine linked his arm in hers and they walked to the front of the Mustang. “We find a motel and get better acquainted,” she smiled and kissed him on the cheek. “And after that… I’m told Monte Carlo is good this time of year.”

THE END