I jumped a red light and jerked my battered and rattling ex-post office van into one of the darkened streets that led to the Rift Manor Estate. None of the streetlights was working, of course, but there was a little light from the occasional bonfire. Packs of feral teens hovered around the flickering flames knocking back cheap Ukrainian vodka. The lone, open kebab shop was like a lighthouse for weary drinkers. I drove carefully, past the boarded up post office, shops and pubs, watching out for sudden movements in the shadows.
‘Darkness is in the eye of the beholder,’ said Mikey Mike, who was shuffling his lardy form in the passenger seat, eager to get out of the van.
Mikey Mike was the vainest man I had ever known. He no longer kept himself in shape but he wore classy knock-off designer clothes that he thought made up for his excessive girth despite the fact that they were two sizes too small. Mikey was so far in denial about his weight he was in the Suez.
And he was unfortunately in one of his philosophical modes. Earlier in the night, we’d been listening to Bing Crosby’s ‘Where The Blue Of The Night’ as we cruised Seatown looking for an open pub, and Mikey had decided that a line from the song- ‘Someone, somewhere is waiting’ – was ‘bloody sinister.’ And then he’d gone into some long, interminable monologue which made little sense, as he stuffed toilet paper up his bleeding nose. He’d been warned about snorting the cheap Russian cocaine that was doing the rounds in Seatown but Mikey just didn’t listen.
I pulled the van into The King John’s Tavern’s deserted car park. Shattered glass twinkled like stars on the tarmac. A gust of wind blew a rattling tin can in front of the van like tumbleweed. I switched off the radio and Mikey shuffled out of the van. It shook and made some painful creaking sounds. I’d bought the van for a song when it had failed its drivability test. The heating was knackered but at least the radio worked.
‘Quick trip to the tinkle-palace to powder my nose,’ said Mikey, and he was off like a flash into the pub.
I got out, locked up the van — though I doubted anyone would have nicked it, even around here — and went into the pub as it started to rain.
Marek and Robert, a couple of massive Poles that worked at the nearby nuclear power station, were playing darts at the far end of the room and knocking back shots of vodka. The Prof – an occasional chemistry teacher at the local College of Further Education – sat alone nursing a half of Guinness singing along to a Peter Frampton song, her speech slurred.
And that was the sum total of the pub’s clientele. Which was quite typical, these days, since a PoundPub had opened up just across the duel carriageway and dragged away most of The King John’s Tavern’s tight-fisted clientele. But the PoundPub wasn’t open after midnight.
‘The postman cometh. What can I get yer, Diggsy,’ said Niall the wiry barman, his glass eye twinkling in the pub lights.
‘Two pints of Nelson,’ I said.
By the time Niall had poured the drinks, Mikey was back from the toilets. It seemed as if he’d spruced himself up again, too and was stinking of cheap aftershave.
‘So, have you heard the news?’ said Niall.
‘What’s that, then?’ I said.
‘Mad Frank’s selling up.’
‘Never. He’s been landlord here since god was a lad,’ I said.
‘True. But he’s retiring. Got himself a villa in Spain or something,’ said Niall.
‘Y viva suspenders,’ said Mikey.
We took our drinks over to a table in the corner, next to a broken fruit machine, its lights flickering.
‘Wonder who’d want to take over this money pit?’ I said.
‘Well, I was thinking …’ said Mikey.
‘Oh, here we go again,’ I said.
Mikey’s get-rich schemes were as frequent as a priest at confession. And usually just as fruitless.
‘No, hear me out,’ said Mikey. He downed his pint in one, stood up and walked over to the bar. ‘I’ll get these in.’
He came back with the drinks on a tray, along with a couple of shots of Sobieski vodka, so I knew he was up for a serious comflab.
‘I’d best take it easy with the booze,’ I said. ‘I’ve the first shift tomorrow.’
I knocked back the shot anyway. Mikey grinned, his teeth pearly white.
‘Just think of the number of pubs we’ve invested in over the years. Why not have one of our own?’ he said.
I looked around the place.
‘But this dump is a deal loss. Even if we could get the dosh together to buy it off Frank, we’d be throwing our money away. Look at it?’
‘You daft sod. You don’t think Frank’s been hanging on to this joint for the last twenty years for love, do you?’
‘So, what, then?’
‘It’s the side orders,’ said Mikey.
‘Well, Marek and Robert over there playing darts. They bring in ciggies and booze from across the Iron Curtain. Sell them here, give Frank a cut. The Prof there, she makes up some speed at the college and sells it here. There’s all sorts of under-the-counter cobblers going on.’
‘I’ll have a ponder,’ I said.
And ponder I did.
I trudged up Sycamore Hill, toward St Hilda’s cemetery, with ‘Every Day Is Like Sunday’ corkscrewing through my brain, seriously considering Mikey Mike’s suggestion.
I plonked myself down under a massive oak tree and lay back against a cold gravestone to catch my breath. And then I rooted in my bag.
Once upon a time being a postie was a cushy little number riddled with perks –as long as you didn’t mind the early mornings and kids calling you Postman Prat, that is.
Christmas was great, with presents from the sad and/or lonely punters that I’d carefully buttered up over the year; bottles of booze, socks and cash. And of course there were the greeting cards that some daft old duffer had slipped the odd fiver or tenner into that made the day worthwhile. It didn’t exactly take MacGyver to secretly open and reseal an envelope.
But, since this new lot – Postwatch – came in, it had all gone pear shaped and you’ve really got to watch your back. Postwatch were hovering over us like vultures.
So, there I was on the top of the hill gargling a miniature of brandy and chomping on a Gingsters pork pie -– breakfast of champions — and seriously considering jacking it all in and going along with Mikey’s plan.
‘The night was bitter/The stars had lost their glitter,’ sang Ava Banana, her bony arms reaching for the pub’s flickering strip lighting.
It was a rain soaked Sunday afternoon and The King John’s Tavern was packed out. Ava, the best drag queen in Seatown, was performing a medley of Judy Garland songs on a makeshift stage and was bringing the house down. It wasn’t exactly my type of music and Ava was a bit past her sell-by-date but I had to admit she was a bloody turn. And more importantly, the punters loved her. Even the chain-smokers in the beer garden were sticking a head in to catch as much of her act as the nicotine would allow.
More by accident than design, pretty much as soon as we’d taken over the pub, we’d started to attract the pink pound. And Seatown’s small but well-off gay community had begun to frequent The King John’s Tavern so regularly we were seriously thinking of changing the name to Queen John’s.
Ava finished her act with a rousing version of ‘I Will Survive’ and I walked over to congratulate her when I saw something that made my heart beat faster than Motorhead’s drummer. Toga sat alone at a table next to the small stage, his big ginger quiff spiralling upwards. I hadn’t noticed that he was there but it was no great surprise, really. Toga was so far in the closet he was in Narnia so he was probably checking out the talent. I nodded a greeting and headed off to the television room to watch The Great Escape, not comfortable about Toga’s presence at all. He was a well-known local thug and full-time nutter who occasionally worked as muscle for Don Amerigo, the local slot machine baron.
I was watching Steve McQueen attempt to jump over a barbed wire fence with a motorcycle when Mikey Mike tapped me on the shoulder.
‘We’ve a problem, Diggsy,’ he said. He whispered in my ear so close I could smell the Pernod and blackcurrant he’d been knocking back. ‘Follow me.’
We headed down the stairs behind the bar to the basement and saw Toga slapping about Tony James, a young rent boy who cruised the pub on occasion.
‘Steady on, Toga,’ I said.
‘For fucks sake, if it isn’t Postman Twat,’ Toga said, and continued using the boy as a punch-bag. Tony started to puke as Toga smacked him in the gut.
‘Come on,’ I said, noticing that Mikey Mike had done a sneaky runner upstairs. ‘Give the lad a break.’
‘Fancy some of it, do you?’ said Toga.
I held up my hands, stepped forward, slipped on Tony’s puke and slammed into Toga, sending him flying into a box of vodka. An old black and white television slipped off a shelf and smashed him on the head, knocking him out cold like a scene from cartoon.
‘Bugger,’ I said.
Donald Amerigo liked to be referred to as Don as it made him think he was some sort of Italian mafia head. He was sat at the bar dressed in Hugo Boss and drinking Chianti, though he’d never set foot in Italy and as far as I was aware he had rarely been out of Seatown.
‘So, we have a bit of a problem, Diggsy,’ he said, twirling a massive Cuban cigar between his fingers.
‘I know, I know. What do the quacks say?’ I said. I’d been dreading Don’s visit and had already downed a couple of shots of vodka, even though it was just past midday. My stomach still curdled.
‘Toga’s going to be out for the count for at least a week. Got concussion, apparently.’
‘Sorry to hear that,’ I said.
He waved a hand.
‘The bloke’s a twat. Responsible for his own actions.’
He leaned close to me. ‘But it does leave us a little short-handed because twat though he may be, Toga has his uses.’
The inside of my mouth and throat were arid. ‘Well, if there’s anything I can do to help.’
‘Oh, there is. There most certainly is. There is one particularly important piece of work that Toga was supposed to carry out for me. And, well, I want you to do it.’
The evening was melting into night as I walked down Mayfair Street, once one of the most sought after streets in Seatown. Now, like everywhere else in the Rift Manor Estate, it was almost a no-go-zone. Smack-heads roamed the streets like characters from The Walking Dead and the sight of the occasional wino gave the area a touch of class. Every terraced house on Mayfair Street was bordered up but one. Number 13.
I knocked on the door. Nothing. Knocked again. After a few moments, the letter box opened.
‘Is that you, Diggsy?’ said a frail and reedy, voice.
‘It is, Benny,’ I said.
‘Not post on Sunday?’ said Benny Rivers.
‘Naw, I’ve been sent to give you a message. Can you let me in?’
He opened the door. ‘Quick,’ he wheezed.
He trundled away pulling his oxygen tank behind him. I closed the door behind me. The place stank of death and disappointment. And kippers.
I followed Benny into the living room as he plonked himself down on a worn sofa.
‘Help yourself to a snifter of vodka, if you fancy,’ he said. ‘It’s only that Ukrainian stuff but it does the job.’
‘Naw thanks,’ I said, looming over him.
‘This is more business than pleasure,’ I said. ‘Don Amerigo sent me.’
Benny nodded slowly and pulled the oxygen mask over his face for a few minutes. I looked around the room- a museum to past glories. Faded photographs cluttered the wall. The deal was that Don Amerigo wanted to buy 13 Mayfair Street from Benny because the council were going to make a Compulsory Purchase Order of the street very soon before they sold it to some supermarket or other. Don already had the rest of the houses in the street and only Benny Rivers was holding out. Old Man Rivers was dying of lung cancer caused by asbestosis and wanted to die in the place where he was born.
Benny took off the oxygen mask. ‘The answer is still no,’ he rasped and fiddled with a packet of Benson and Hedges cigarettes. ‘Is it alright if I smoke?’
I looked at the oxygen tank and had an idea.
‘Can you wait till I’ve gone, Benny?’ I’ve got that asthma.’
I wandered into the kitchen. It was filthy. I turned on gas.
‘I was born here. Married here. Had my first shag here. I just want to die here. That’s not unreasonable, is it?’ he said.
‘It isn’t,’ I said, as I stepped back into the living room.
‘Will you tell that to Don?’
‘I will,’ I said. ‘And I’ll let myself out. Tara Benny.’
‘Tara, Diggsy,’ he said.
As soon as I closed the door, I started to jog down Mayfair Street but I was already a couple of streets away when I heard the bang.
Paul D. Brazill is the author of A Case Of Noir, Guns Of Brixton and The Neon Boneyard. He was born in England and lives in Poland. He is an International Thriller Writers Inc member whose writing has been translated into Italian, German and Slovene. He has had writing published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Books of Best British Crime 8,10 and 11, alongside the likes of Ian Rankin, Neil Gaiman and Lee Child. He has edited a few anthologies, including the best-selling True Brit Grit – with Luca Veste. Blog: http://pauldbrazill.com