Ashes

By Paul R Green

Orland Clay hawked and spat out a blackened gob of saliva. Bent double with hands on knees he watched wearily as the spitball hit the street, and slowly oozed down the soot-stained cobblestone leaving a slick silvery trail like a deformed slug.
The crack of splintering timber brought the young guard’s head up in time to see the final death throes of the burning building. The main roof beam rent in two, each part crashing through what was left of the first floor and stirring a cloud of glowing embers to dance and swirl like fireflies in the night sky. The searing wave of heat and debris roiling out from the conflagration forced the young guard to turn away and cough up another soot-blackened gob.
“You alright there, lad?” A meaty hand slapped him on the back, startling Clay for a second. The deep, mellifluous voice belonged to Clay’s sergeant and mentor, Churt DePard. Clay pulled in a deep breath, the hot air tasting of burnt wood and, rather disturbingly, roast pork as he inhaled and straightened to answer his superior.
“Just getting my breath, Sarge.”
“We’ve stopped it spreading at least. Get some water in you then come find me, lad. I want your knowledge on this one.” The big man put a fatherly hand on Clay’s shoulder before striding away to bellow orders at the townsfolk who had stopped passing buckets to gawk at the building’s final collapse.
Clay watched for a moment, wondering what knowledge he could possibly possess that the veteran sergeant didn’t.

***

The fire had burnt out, reducing the warehouse to a smouldering ruin of smoking ash and charred, stunted beams that to Clay’s mind looked like a giant, twisted hand clawing at the grey winter sky. Scattered amidst the wreckage, though the bulk of them were near what should have been the exits, lay a number of burnt bodies; most seared to the bone, and none of them promising any means of identification. A disturbing number of the them were too small to be adults. Clay looked at his ash-caked boots and tried not to think too hard as to just what that ash consisted of. He’d been stood for a while now, waiting for his mentor to speak; knowing better than to interrupt him while thinking. At least his feet were warm, he thought, thanking the gods the cobbles had retained some heat from the blaze.
“I’ve seen enough. Let’s go.” Clay was startled from his thoughts and forced to jog after his
sergeant as he strode away from the smoking remains.
“Where are we going? What did you see?”
“You’ve seen what I have. Tell me.”
Clay had half expected this, the gruff sergeant had for some reason taken the young guard under his wing; occasionally drawing him into investigations where other watch members would either not see the bigger picture or took the easy option and ignored it. Along the way DePard would challenge Clay, forcing him to think about his reasoning as well as his actions; teaching him how to be more than just a fight-breaker and a turn-key. For his part, Clay, quite liked the special attention and insight that his mentor was providing, though he could do without the occasional jokes made at his expense by his other more traditional colleagues.
“The fire was obviously deliberate.”
“Obviously?”
Clay smiled. This was all part of the game; he had to explain his reasoning.
“Yes; the warehouse was clearly being used as a doss house; with all the refugees arriving since Kerrigan started his crusade, they’re springing up all over town. And although it’s possible someone could have knocked over a lantern or candle or some such, that wouldn’t explain how the fire spread so quickly, nor why so many people were unable to escape. I spotted what looked like chains where the doors would have been, so it’s a reasonable assumption that the doors were fastened on the outside. You could argue that it was an accident and that the doors were regularly sealed this way to prevent either discovery of the unsanctioned dosshouse or theft of the warehouse contents proper,” he paused.
“But” DePard hadn’t slowed, another one of his quirks; he was of the opinion that it was always better to be going somewhere, even if he then had to change direction should new evidence present itself.
“I’m inclined to think that the killer either knew they’d be trapped inside or brought the chains himself and made sure of it. Either way, it’s murder.” He looked to DePard.
“Not bad, Clay, but without an explanation for the rapid spread of the fire you’re still relying upon conjecture as to it being a premeditated act of murder.”
“I’m no expert but looking at what’s left of the place, most of the damage is to the external walls. Agreed?”
DePard nodded.
“And, yes, the inside is badly burned, but the fire was fought from the outside in, which begs the question if the fire had started inside the property then why isn’t that where the worst of the damage is.”
DePard grunted.”Well then, lad, where do we go to act upon this deduction?”
“Seeing as the fire was on the edge of the Warrens; King B.”
The sergeant actually stopped. King B was a notorious criminal, running a city wide gang of
prostitutes, thieves, and assassins. He was also the de facto mayor of the Warrens. The watch, those of them not on his payroll at least, had been after him for years, but King B was a cautious man with a keen mind and had so far kept out of gaol. He was also very difficult to get close to, relying upon a chain of henchmen and go-betweens to act as buffers.
“You know where to find him?”
“He’s not hard to find. Hard to get to yes, but not hard to find.”
Clay turned back the way they had come, allowing himself the hint of a smug grin as his sergeant was forced to follow.

***

Churt DePard had seen a lot of things in his lifetime; been in some tough places, but there was something about the Warrens that he always found disconcerting. He tried to put it down to his watchman’s instinct reminding him that he was in an area of the city with a much higher than average crime rate, and a virtually nonexistent watch presence, but he knew deep down that it was something else; something much older and primal. It was in the way everyone moved; slow and deliberate, never turning their backs. It was the way everyone watched you, whether that be the bold stares of the bravos and street toughs, or the surreptitious glances of those lurking in the shadows. Even those that could be described as regular citizens, the merchants, smiths, butchers and beggars all seemed to stop what they were doing and stare balefully as the watchmen passed by.
For his part, DePard projected an air of calm authority, back straight, hand on sword hilt, though his eyes constantly swept his surroundings for any sign of trouble.
“In here.” Clay indicated a bakers and stepped inside. DePard followed.
The smell of fresh bread, a favourite of DePard’s at the best of times, was like an exotic perfume after the pungent smells of the city streets, and the heat from the ovens provided a welcome respite from the winter chill.
The bakery was busy as loaves were loaded into baskets to be delivered in time for breakfast to those as could afford it, the work overseen by a short fat man with arms that could shame a blacksmith. Seeing the two men enter he turned to face them as he continued wrapping bread. The broad, yet handsome face was marred by a scar running up from his chin through his lips and along one side of his nose; the light scar tissue vivid against his dark skin.
“Orland. How good to see you. If you’re here about my guild fees, though, you should know that I have strong views when it comes to extortion.” The deep baritone only slightly effected by the scar.
“Don’t worry, uncle, I’m not after your money.”
The baker mimed a relieved sigh. Then moved round to smother Clay with a powerful embrace; the young guard thinking it a good job his cloak was white as his uncle’s flour covered arms wrapped around him. The baker stepped back, affectionately patting Clay’s cheek.
“Well I know it’s not a social call. You rarely visit, and when you do you’re always considerate enough to come out of uniform.” He smiled and turned to DePard. “It’s not that we have anything against you Doves but the neighbours are apt to get nervous when a couple of white cloaks come visiting. Especially when one of them’s Churt DePard.” He held out a flour covered hand.
DePard was surprised at being identified but managed to keep his expression neutral as he
accepted the strong handshake.
The baker gave the sergeant an apologetic look.
“There’s a lot of folk round here still bitter about Goven Chandler.”
DePard sniffed. “Goven Chandler was a rapist with a taste for young flesh. I’d kill the bastard again in a heartbeat.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, sergeant. Don’t get me wrong. Folks round here wanted him dead. They just wanted to do it their way; make sure he suffered.”
“He suffered.” DePard’s eyes were ice.
The baker still gripped DePard’s hand.
“Of that I do not doubt. However, his victims’ families don’t think it was enough. I think they were hoping for a more protracted experience for mister Chandler. That, and for him to go to his death with fewer testicles of course.”
“You don’t get fewer than none.” DePard’s expression hadn’t changed.
The baker grinned, slapped a floury hand on the sergeant’s shoulder and released his grip on the other hand.
“Are you sure you’re not from the Warrens, Sergeant?” He rocked back on his heels before moving back behind his counter. “Now what can I do for you?”
Clay stepped forward.
“I’ll get straight to the point and not insult you by asking if you heard about the fire on Wagonway Road.” Clay said as the baker returned to wrapping loaves.
“Terrible news. I hear there were folk caught inside?”
“At least twenty; some of them children. And not caught, trapped. The doors were chained so they couldn’t escape.”
The baker’s chestnut eyes, the irises rimmed with a speckle of lighter brown, flicked up to meet Clay’s. For a split second fire seemed to flash from the hazel specks.
“We need to know who did it, Uncle, they need to be stopped.”
The fire was gone, tamped down to a less noticeable, but much hotter slow burn.
“There’s plenty talk on the streets and in the inns, especially those around the docks about how the refugees are becoming a problem. How the city should be housing them elsewhere. Not our problem, sort of thing. That’s just human nature, though; no one likes to share too much and some people have a different concept of what constitutes too much. This though, if it’s true,”
“It is.” Said DePard.
“Then this is something else.” He stared at DePard, judging him. “My business is fortunate enough to get a lot of customers, Sergeant; it gives me an understanding of this community. I’ll keep my ears open.” He shifted his attention back to his nephew. “Now, do you want a couple of stotties to take away?” He was already wrapping a couple of the flat breads.
“Thank you, Uncle. You don’t get them up our way.”
The baker handed Clay the warm parcel as he saw the guards to the door.
“All the more reason to visit us more often, Lando; out of uniform though, eh?” He said giving Clay a hearty slap on the back as he ushered them onto them outside and closed the door.

The wind whipping down the narrow street stripped away all warmth and the comforting aroma of fresh bread, replacing them with the rotten smells of decaying street waste and the biting cold of winter. Clay tucked the parcel into his tunic, enjoying the warmth it provided, before pulling his cloak tight and looking to his sergeant.
“So your uncle knows King B. Should I be concerned?”
“No. I’ve chosen my side.”
DePard nodded his approval.

***

Bokeem Clay watched his nephew and DePard as they walked away. He was angry, and the anger was building. He was angry that the boy had come here in uniform. He was angry that he’d brought the sergeant. He was also angry that someone had committed such an atrocity on his patch. But that was nothing compared to how furious he was that someone had committed such an atrocity on his patch without his say so.

***

The glow of the lantern threw light into the open warehouse space as Hero pulled the door open and stepped inside. He winced at the overpowering smell of fish, wishing his boss had chosen any of the many other buildings he owned as he pulled his kerchief up over his nose in a futile attempt to suppress the stench. His boss followed him inside, his face only flickering slight acknowledgement of the offensive odour. The five other men, King B’s employees all, were also employed as dock hands and therefore seemed immune to the smell.
One of the men, a tall, heavy set bruiser, pulled the door shut against the winter night and took his place by The King. He somehow seemed even larger when stood by his boss. The others split up to light more lanterns.
Suspended upside down from an overhead beam at the rooms centre, three naked men – none of them over eighteen – their hands bound behind their backs, slowly twisted at the end of the ropes lashed around their feet.
Bokeem Clay approached his prisoners until he stood just in front of them. Three of his men moved behind the captives and held them so they faced their boss.
“It has come to my attention that one, two, or maybe even all three of you, can assist me in my enquiries.” The King’s voice echoed around the large room.
The captives said nothing.
“Let me make this simple for you. I know that your group was responsible for the fire and
subsequent deaths at the warehouse on Wagonway Road. I know that you three boys were in the Tack spouting your vitriol just before the aforementioned conflagration. What I would like you to tell me is who started the fire, and who gave the orders. That’s all. Two names and this all ends for two of you.”
The King studied the three men as his words sunk in. Their faces a curious purple, a combination of the cold and the blood settling in their heads. None of them had the look of real killers about them, though he knew they were responsible for the fire. They were cowards; hiding behind the mask of their cause, bravado swelled by the group they belonged to, committing their despicable acts through fear of losing face in front of their so called mates. Never realising those very same mates were as like to be feeling the same peer pressure and fear of rejection. Bokeem Clay despised men like this, but he knew just how to use them.
“Hero.”
His man stepped forward.
“That one.” He pointed to the largest of the three prisoners, and walked off to the manager’s office in the corner of the building where one of his men was brewing a pot of coffee. There was no need for him to watch as Hero lowered the selected captive to the ground and manhandled him through a side door.

***

As Bokeem was pouring his third coffee Hero entered and nodded. King B joined his man and they returned to stand before the two remaining captives. He took a sip of his coffee before speaking.
“I know you’re curious as to the fate of your friend. Right now your limited imaginations
are conjuring up all sorts of unpleasant scenarios involving red hot tongs, bread knives and
toasting forks. All you need to know, however, is that your friend told us what we wanted.”
He took another sip of coffee, savouring the warmth as much as the taste as the hanging men’s eyes darted from him to each other and back. King B smiled; they were his.
“Now what many people fail to recognise about using torture to extract information is that the subject, in this case your absent colleague mister Reeves, is just as likely to tell his questioner what he thinks he wants to hear as he is to tell him the truth.”
Again, he gave the men time to digest what he’d said as he took another mouthful.
“So, what that means is, and I’m sure you bright young lads have already figured this out, is that we require some form of corroboration; a verification of your colleague’s claims so that we don’t act upon inconclusive information. I’m sure you understand.”
“It was Solomon Pitt made us do it.” Both men spluttering out the name almost instantaneously. “He said it would send a message.”
The King nodded.
“Pitt planned the deed no doubt. And he did send a message; just not to the people you boys
think.”
A look of understanding appeared on the face of one of the prisoners.
“It wasn’t about the Northerners. It was about the warehouse. The message was for you.”
“Clever lad. And he chose you boys to deliver it. Obedient young pups, blinded by hatred and fear.”
He said waving his mug in their direction.
“And you two,” he said, “went through with it. You two, and your friend back there, carried out his plan and burnt those women and children to death over geography. And that, that’s on you. Pitt might have sent you but no one made you do it. That’s just how lickspittles like you justify your cowardly actions to yourselves.”
He handed his coffee to Hero, trading the tin mug for a bread knife.
“A man is responsible for his own actions. Always.”

***

DePard pulled the last of the potatoes from the patch he kept behind the barracks, checked it for rot, and satisfied there was none, added it to the sack by his side. The crop was small, he’d been busy and hadn’t been able to tend his garden as well as he’d have liked; he was also late in harvesting. Still, he’d have some good compost next season, he thought, looking at the pile of rotting waste he’d fenced off in one corner. He stood, brushed dirt from his knees and turned to see Clay waiting by the door.
“We’ve been left a gift.”
“Oh?” Said DePard.
“A man named Reeves was bound and left outside the Tack. Roper and DeMarc found him this morning when they went back to help with seeing to the remains.”
“He hurt?”
“Broken nose, a few bruises. More scared than anything. Claims some upright citizens overheard him bragging about his deeds and took the law into their own hands.”
DePard chuckled. “In the Warrens?”
“Don’t be so dismissive of the Warrens, Sarge. The watch might not be welcome but the folk there do have a code.”
“Don’t fuck with King B?” De Pard chuckled again. “Don’t pout lad, I get it. Places like that, they breed closeness. A sense of community you don’t find in the likes of Park Square and Temple Grove. But whether they think so or not, they still come under our watch, and as much as I’d like to believe that some good citizens handed over this Reeves out of a sense of community and public duty, I think we both know that your uncle wouldn’t have delivered him to us unless there was something to be gained. I think we need to have a word with this Reeves.”

***

The forge was an old guard tower at the rear of the western barracks. It had been heavily damaged in the big siege over twenty years ago and was now mostly a hollow shell. About ten years ago the then head of the watch, a man named Thorn, had had the rubble cleared from the one ground floor room that still had four solid walls, if not a ceiling, and began using it for the questioning of prisoners. The room was an old store and therefore windowless; light, what little there was, came from torches in the wall sconces of the room above – or at least those that could be safely reached.
Reeves was strapped to a single chair in the centre of the room. The chair itself bolted to the floor, but the main feature of the forge wasn’t the walls, or the light, or even the chair; it was the smell. The room reeked of fear, as if every man who had sat in that chair had sweated a part of himself into the porous stone floor and over the years that essence, that physical manifestation of hopelessness and defeat had spread drop by oozing drop until it permeated the whole room and the very walls were now covered in a nervous sheen.
Reeves watched fearfully as DePard and Clay entered and took their positions. The younger guard moved behind him leading Reeves to naturally try and follow his movement. The thick leather restraints prevented him turning his head far enough leaving him to speculate on, or more likely worry about, where Clay was and what he was doing.
A noise brought his attention back to the big sergeant who set down a small table in front of the prisoner. Resting on the table was a cloth bag. DePard pulled a scroll from his belt, opened it up and read from it.
“Crispin Reeves. Of an above average height and stocky build with hair of a clean straw colour and eyes of blue. Tattoo depicting the sigil of Crispin the Defender on right forearm.”
“Nowt wrong with that. Crispin is a hero to this city. Me Mam named me for him.”
DePard ignored the interruption.
“Lives with parents and three brothers above the kilns off Artisan Square. A few overnight
detentions for drunken affray and common assault. All of them off the back of trips to the Warrens. Seems to me you’re the type of boy who likes trouble. There’s no other reason I can see for you to be straying so far from home.
“I’m a citizen of Stonelake; can walk where I please.”
“True enough, lad, and as a citizen you’ll know the punishment for murder.”
“I’m not of age as to be hanged without witnesses to the crime. I know that much.”
The boy tried to hold DePard’s gaze but couldn’t and squirmed in the chair as his eyes broke away.
“A lawyer now are you, boy? Well, just so you’re clear, how you’re tried is at the discretion of the magistrate, and the opinion of the watch weighs heavily upon her decision. Which, as far as you’re concerned, means I get to decide whether you’re tried as man or boy, and whether your future’s in chains or on rope. What say you, Clay? Is Crispin here merely a confused young boy lead astray by a wicked bigot, or is he a true grown man who knows his mind?”
Reeves jumped as two hands clamped onto his shoulders. He tried unsuccessfully to jerk his head away from the hot breath that suddenly spread across his neck.
“These are the shoulders of a man, sergeant. Broad and strong. I say he hangs.” The breath
disappeared along with the hands, as Clay slipped back into the shadows.
Before Reeves could gather himself DePard suddenly leant forward, bringing his face within inches of the boy’s.
“The way I see it you’ve spent your time playing at being a big man. Well congratulations, Crispin, you’re being treated like one now. And will be right up to the point of your execution. No doubt you’ve been to a hanging, lad; stood laughing with your mates as the
prisoner danced his last jig. Will they laugh at you I wonder? Point to your soiled britches and makecrude jokes as you gasp your last, and your mother pulls at her hair and wails.”
“It was Pitt. Solomon Pitt.” The words came through ragged, tearful breaths.
DePard smiled as he leaned back.
“And where would I find this Solomon Pitt?”

***

For the second time in as many days DePard and Clay found themselves standing in front of a burnt out building. This time it was the remains of an inn called The Phoenix. DeMarc joined them from where he’d been talking with an old man.
“Let me guess,” said DePard, “a tragic accident. No witnesses.”
“Actually plenty. The old man says there were about a dozen of them. They nailed the doors shut, doused the walls in oil and put torches to the place. Anyone who tried to leave caught a crossbow bolt for their efforts.” He indicated the charred remains of a figure draped through what was left of a window. “They were all masked though, of course.”
“Of course. Any survivors?”
“Not sure. The old geezer reckons he saw someone jump from an upstairs window into the canal, but he also says he caught at least a couple of quarrels. Roper’s leading a search along the banks to see if a body or trail turns up.”
“Good work. Let me know if he finds anything. And see if you can’t get a better description from the old man.
“Will do, Sarge.” DeMarc headed back toward the witness who was starting to slope away. “Oi, Grandad! I’m not finished with you yet.”
DePard turned back to Clay, “I’m hungry. Fancy a stottie?”

***

“I hear the good citizens hereabouts found you your arsonist.” Bokeem Clay said from behind his counter where he was pre-slicing a loaf – ‘For the widow Fens, you understand. She has trouble with her hands. Arthritis.’
“Seems we may have a copycat. I’m sure you’ve heard about the Phoenix.” Said DePard.
“A tragedy. One of the oldest inns in Stonelake. Well, the site is. If memory serves this is the third Phoenix to be built there. The original inn was called The Refuge, believe it or not; burnt down during the trout riots. Stood less than a year before taking a direct hit during the siege. The second incarnation lasted a whole decade before mysteriously burning down one night. Funny thing was the landlord’s wife just happened to be visiting her sick aunt that night, so only her notoriously unfaithful husband was killed.”
DePard actually laughed at that, surprising his protege.
“And now this. Maybe they should change the name.”
“Or find a new trade?” said DePard.
“Indeed. Something less prone to incident and accident.” Bokeem mused.
“Like baking?”
“Ah, but baking can be a hazardous profession,Sergeant; too many ways the unwary amateur can be burnt.” The baker juggled a hot loaf as if for emphasis.
“And quite a competitive business I would think.”
“Cut-throat.” He said with a smile as he drew the serrated blade of his bread knife through the loaf. “Was there a purpose to your visit, Sergeant? Or is this just a social call?”
“Oh, let’s call it a bit of both. I just thought that now we’ve become acquainted I’d keep you abreast of what’s going on. Think of it as a public service.”
“Well, as you now know, we’re a tight-knit community in the Warrens, Our Lando’ll tell you; so you needn’t have bothered.”
DePard smiled a grim smile. “It’s no bother. I’m quite happy to call in whenever I’m passing, which will be much more often from now on I think, due to all the recent trouble hereabouts.”
“Oh, I think that’s all blown over now, Sergeant. The arsonist is safely locked up in your very own cells, and his co-conspirators appear to have befallen a tragic, yet poetic fate at the hands of the very community they purported to have represented. I did try and tell you that the people round here prefer our own form of justice.”
“And I’m sure I don’t need tell you that I represent the law here. Me, your nephew here, and any other man wearing the White. Much as we appreciate the community’s assistance in the capture of Crispin Reeves, we’ll take a dim view of any vigilante actions. You break a law in my town, I take you down.”
The two men’s eyes were locked on each other.
“As a respected voice of the community you can spread the word at your next resident’s meeting.” DePard said.
Bokeem Clay held the sergeant’s gaze for a moment more before shifting his eyes to his nephew. The younger guard, didn’t flinch, causing his uncle to give a grudging shrug of respect.
“Until next time then.” He said indicating the door.
The two guards exited the bakery and slowly walked back to their barracks as a light snow began to fall from the grey sky.

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.

It’s My Turn

by Barbara Tsipouras

It’s my turn now. I know it. But where to hide? Where to seek help? There’s nowhere I could possibly go and nobody who could possibly help me. It is too late now. I’m deeply involved. He’s here right beside me in my bed.

Two years I waited for him. Two years I missed him, was faithful, always visited, brought him whatever he wanted and when he finally was released I embraced him with all my love and was glad to see him full of energy, ready to re-start life.

I didn’t see how twisted and screwed he was, took him back into my house and my bed, had big dreams.

He hates to be famous for that damned video. Hates being famous for being pummelled. That video was the reason for his suffering in prison. All the abuse.

I thought he had overcome all that. It was over. Nobody recognizes him anymore. The video is long forgotten.

Until he told me.

At first I didn’t take him seriously, thought he was joking. But he was not.

Today I saw it in his eyes, the desire to be finally caught, to be found, to be famous of his own accord. He wants to go back, respected and feared.

Two months have passed. In the beginning he always came home filled with joy, satisfied that he did it again. Seeking approval he told me in detail, how he bought the knife and stuck it into the next old guy passing the street or went to buy a gun and shot the vendor. Or the poor girl he strangled in the park. He was so proud of all these random kills.

I did nothing to stop him. Nor did I leave. I thought it would stop, but it didn’t.

The police never came. Now there is no joy anymore, merely exhaustion. He’s tired, disillusioned.

Nobody besides me knows what he’s done.

His thirst for fame is unbroken. I saw it in his eyes. And I’ll be the victim to send him back to prison as a celebrity. That’s his aim. I’m the target.

Now, after aggressive and passionate sex, appropriate for the last time, he’s lying by my side. Drunk as usual, breathing hard and snoring.

Torn between love, fear and hatred I look at him.

He still has the chance to wake up.

But he won’t.

Famously Infamous

by Mark Barrett

I’m fucking famous.

You might have heard of me: ‘Punk gets Pummelled’? Over eight million hits on YouTube and counting. Pretty good, huh? Popular, yeah? Not really, because I’m the punk.

You’ll have definitely heard of the other guy: Cole Tenner. Cage fighting champion, king of the ring in Vegas and a fucking action hero at the movies. He did great. But you only might have heard of me.

I’m here in High Desert State Prison doing time. Hard time. And, let me tell you, it is really fucking hard time when you’re famous. Yes, I have been in prison before, but back then I was a nobody, a no mark. Now I’m fucking famous. Everybody wants a piece of you when you’re famous, and a fair few guys have had a piece of me since I got myself back in here.

Bitch Tits. Bettini is his real name, but everyone calls him Bitch Tits. Not to his face. He’s a big, fat Italian fuck who is a big thing in organised crime – and not just physically. You work out the rest. Anyway, Bitch Tits thinks it’s funny to re-enact ‘Punk Gets Pummelled’ pretty much every time that I pass him in the yard. My nose barely gets a chance to heal between fractures. Once I tried to fight back, but that time this punk really got pummelled. Broken ribs, the lot. Now I just settle for the nose.

I wouldn’t care, but hardly anybody knew who I was before Bitch Tits did that, and then encouraged everyone to look it up on the Internet. I mean, the Internet in prison! What the fuck is the world coming too? We’re supposed to be being punished and rehabilitated. For Christ’s sake, some of these dumb fucks are in here because of shit they did on the Internet. There’s even guys with Smart Phones in here. I reckon it took about six minutes for every lag in High Desert to see that YouTube clip, and now they all want a piece of me. Why? Because I’m fucking famous.

And it’s not just beatings. I’ve been raped by at least three guys. I say at least three, because it may have been the same guy more than once. They don’t do it because they’re gay, they just do it for the hell of it, or because they’re bored, or just for fun, or whatever other fucked-up reason that unstable, violent, locked-up guys might have for doing anything. There’s a lot of that sort of thing goes on in here – forced and consensual – and it’s hardly ever because they are gay. On the outside they’d be dead against it, homophobic even. Big, tough, heterosexual men who hate fags. Not Samuel ‘Two-Bricks’ Flores, of course, he’s just right out there, queen of all he surveys. Funny, he doesn’t get any hassle about it from the other guys, but if a perfectly straight guy so much as gives a preference for a brand of shower gel then the others rip him apart. Even the ones who have relations in the cells. Weird that. I’ve never really understood it. I mean, if a guy prefers a guy, then what the hell? Live and let love, that’s what I say. And those that say it’s not natural, how? We’re all animals; we’re all natural: so if some of us fancy the same sex as us, then that’s got to be natural, hasn’t it? I’m not into it, and I haven’t enjoyed being on the receiving end, but I’m not against it.

Even the guards are bastards when you’re fucking famous. They treat you like mock royalty, sarcastic bastards. Ask them for anything and it’s, “oh, can’t you sort that out with your friends in Tinsel Town?” Or they’ll take shit out of your cell saying, “it’s a souvenir to prove that I knew the great Punk who got Pummelled.” Right funny fucks those Bugs are.

So, yes. I’m fucking famous. Famous, and four weeks short of my next parole hearing. I’ve been good. Ridiculously good. Even my spat with Bitch Tits didn’t get written up, so I’m bound to get out. Bound to – I’m fucking famous so they wouldn’t dream of keeping me in.

They should keep me in of course, and would do if they knew what I was thinking. But they don’t. You see, I’ve been considering what got me back in here. I know what you’re thinking: “oh, he blames Aiden Cole and he’s going to go after him.” Well, you’re wrong. I don’t blame Cole Tanner. I don’t even blame StrawDolli44 who posted the YouTube clip. I blame myself. Why the fuck did I’d choose the biggest, fittest bastard on that bus to mug? I know why. Pride. I was trying to prove something. And I did prove something. I proved that I’m a nobody and a no mark. But I had already known that, deep down inside. Maybe that’s why I chose the big bastard, because I wanted to be proven right.

Well, I’ve had a taste of fame now, and I like it. So when I get out I’ve thought of a new way to be famous. I’m going to kill nobodies and no marks like me. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a big idea to become a serial killer, with intricate plans and subtle leads to frame other people, or some sort of motif to keep the police interested. No. I’m just going to kill people.

The thing is, I know I’m going to get caught. They always do. But when I get caught, I’ll be famous again – on my own terms. Famous as the aggressor, not the victim. So I’m going to plan nothing. Every day I’m just going to wake up and get on with my own shit. And if I feel like killing somebody that day, I’ll just do it. No planning, no messing, no signature or trail. Just go to a shop, buy a knife, walk out onto the street and stick it in some pathetic looking fucker eighteen or twenty times. Nothing fancy. Either that or strangle a valet in a dark car park. Or pretend to be testing a gun for purchase and blow the shopkeeper’s brains all over the wall. Or any number of simple shit like that.

I’ll get away with it for a while, because they are the sort of random, one-off crimes that the cops struggle with. Yes, they’ll get me eventually, but by then I’ll have racked up enough to be famous again. And every single one that I’ve done will be famous with me.

Four weeks. That’s all. Who knows, after four weeks maybe I’ll bump into you just after I’ve bought my KitchenGuru utility knife and, just like Billy the Kid, I’ll make you fucking famous, too.

Cole

By Paul R. Green

The cut on his eye stung like a bastard as Otis rinsed away the blood and smeared Vaseline over it. “I told ya to watch his elbows” the corner man hissed as he threw the bloody sponge into the bucket and removed the ice-pack from Cole’s neck. His trainer’s words were clear to Cole, despite the incessant baying of the twenty thousand plus crowd outside the cage that had come to the Seers to see him take on Martinez. “Relax, coach, ain’t nothing coming between me and that title. Certainly not that preening cock” he snarled, eyes fixed on the wiry Latino currently stood atop his stool, arms held wide like the statue of Christ the Redeemer in his native Rio. He raised them up, flexing the muscles and whipping the crowd into a further frenzy. “You must admit he has a certain flair, though” the trainer conceded as the bell sounded for the fourth round. “Now go knock his punk ass into next week.”

***

Cole’s rise from a minor player in the Nevada leagues, fighting in clumsily welded cages for a hundred bucks a night to having a shot at the title could only be described as meteoric ; a term he’d never understood – didn’t meteors come crashing down?

Like most things in life in Cole’s experience, it had all come about thanks to dumb luck, or to be more accurate a dumb fuck, stupid enough to try and mug him outside the bus station in Parumph. Cole had been walking to his motel thinking of the steak he was going to order from the diner off of East Street, when the guy had sidled up alongside him, pulled a knife and demanded Cole’s wallet. Cole had stared at the knife for a few seconds, not exactly in shock, more out of disbelief; not comprehending why the guy had picked him when he had the choice of any number of potential victims, all of them less physically imposing than Cole’s six foot two, two hundred and forty pounds frame. He shifted his gaze to the man’s eyes. They were a rich hazel colour, though the whites were tinged with red as if the man had rubbed them recently – probably trying to keep the flop sweat that covered his forehead from blurring his vision. His hair was a short, mousy brown fuzz, as if just growing back in after being shaved to the scalp. That and the slightly too big clothes, all of them at least five years out of date, worn beneath a denim jacket that had seen better days and a crudely drawn skull tatt on the back of his hand suggested his would-be assailant wasn’t long out of prison.

Cole’s eyes quickly swept across his surroundings, the street was quiet but not deserted, though the nearest person to them was a good hundred yards away and oblivious to all but their destination and the music pumping through their oversized headphones. Cars passed, but no-one was really paying any attention to Cole and his mugger. Back from where he’s came he saw the bus pulling away from the station.

“Look, friend, walk away. You don’t want to do this” Cole said calmly, as he subconsciously flexed his fingers and shifted onto the balls of his feet. Apparently the man had wanted to though, and Cole had been forced to defend himself, neatly side-stepping the attack, blocking the clumsy lunge with the knife, and breaking the man’s arm in the process. The move that instinctively followed had caught the stumbling attacker across the back of the neck speeding his rendezvous with the sun-baked asphalt and leaving his assailant with a broken nose, a shattered jaw and three missing teeth.

And that could have been that if not for the girl on the bus who’d caught the whole thing on her phone. It had gone viral. Within a week he was competing in matches in Vegas, within a month he had an agent and had fought on both coasts. And now six months after ‘PUNK GETS PUMMELLED’ had took the internet by storm, Cole was back in Vegas – and this time he wasn’t just on the Strip, but sharing the bill with Hector ‘El Gallo’ Martinez at Seers Casino in a title fight with a purse worth a cool five mill.

***

“You think you can take me, Puto?” The words were sharp in his ear as Cole desperately struggled for air as Martinez pushed his face into the mesh of the cage. The champion was a lot stronger than his size suggested and coupled with his speed he’d caught Cole a sucker punch to the kidneys that had resulted in him being pinned to the cage as the crowd outside bayed for blood. And he was pinned. He’d exhausted all his options and knew his opponent had enough experience not to give him an opening. Not now. Not with the title so close.

Except?

What the hell? Martinez was switching his grip on Cole’s wrists where they were painfully held halfway up his back. This was it; time to man up and take the title, or go back to being paid peanuts to fight has-beens and wannabes in Fuknows, Nevada.

***

Cole groaned as he pulled himself out of bed, grimaced as he stood and the arthritis in his knees sent knives of fire screaming through his body. Five years at the top were beginning to take their toll; a fact confirmed as he stared back at his haggard reflection in the bathroom mirror as he took his first piss of the day. Maybe he should get a face-lift? Would that help or hinder his acting career? Probably hinder; action heroes were meant to be rugged. Maybe he should grow a moustache? But a proper one like Charles Bronson or Warren Oates. He had a few weeks before he started shooting his next picture; he’d start today.

He pulled on a pair of sweat pants and a T-shirt and headed downstairs, instructing Maria, his cook, that he’d take breakfast by the pool this morning as he grabbed a mug of coffee and stepped into the California sun. He paused at the door, letting his eyes adjust to the glare, and smiled as he watched Rachel glide through the crystal clear water as she carried out her morning ritual of fifty lengths before breakfast.

***

Cole stared at the leaves floating on the pool’s murky surface, wondering if he should take the deal. He hadn’t fought in over three years – a long time in the MMA game – and, if he was honest with himself, wasn’t sure if he was in good enough shape to defend his title. He’d managed to avoid it so far thanks to his agents and management team, who used his Hollywood status and shooting schedules to sidestep any challenges, but his last couple of films had thanked and the same people who had been so keen to help were now worrying about where their next slice of Cole Tanner pie was coming from. Still, if he won, it could just be the boost his career needed. That and the five million fee, regardless of whether he won or lost, meant that deep down he already knew the answer.

***

Cole roared his contempt for his opponent as he slammed his forearm across his chest, sending the punk crashing to the floor. He quickly followed up by dropping onto him, leading with an elbow to the gut that forced the air from his lungs in a violent, spittle-flecked gasp. Whilst the challenger was still recovering, Cole flipped him onto his stomach and locked his arms behind his back. The crowd were going frantic. They were chanting his name. This was it. The match was almost his. All he needed to do was hang on for ten more seconds. Ten short seconds.

Not that short. Not short enough. Maybe he should just switch to a more secure group? Yeah, the more he thought about it, the more changing his grip seemed like a good idea.

Cole eased off for a second… Continue reading