Viva La Madness, p.13J. J. Connolly
As we travel through Islington traffic police are marshalling cars past an accident. Roy’s twitch begins to activate at the sight of law enforcement. It doesn’t calm down again until we approach genteel Hampstead, the neighbourhoods becoming more gentrified and leafier. We skirt around the Heath, a few thousand acres of untouched parkland.
Hampstead is what Americans think England should be like – a quaint village with tight streets and coaching inns. We pass through the village, up a hill, over a small roundabout, and down a leafy lane. Roy takes a last look in the rear-view then pulls off into an almost hidden road. After twenty yards we stop at a gatehouse in front of a large set of black gates. The uniformed security guard flicks open a window.
‘Good afternoon, sir,’ he says politely. ‘Can I help?’
‘Could you let Mister Berkeley know I’m here?’
‘And you are?’
‘Mister Johns,’ says Mister Burns. ‘And this is Mister Hunt,’ he says indicating me.
The guard has already picked up a telephone and buzzed through to Sonny, now AKA Mister Berkeley again. The gates open. The guard salutes as we drive through into the courtyard of a modern apartment block, an updated version of Art Deco with curved glass windows, rounded corners, painted brilliant white and pistachio. Like a hotel from South Beach, Miami, transposed to old world Hampstead.
Royski drives around the back of the building and parks up in a space set aside for visitors. We walk over to the entrance of the block. Roy buzzes the intercom, looks up and winks at a CCTV camera positioned above the door. The door buzzes. Roy pulls it open.
Inside, the block is incredibly quiet. From an entrance hall – huge, light and airy – four wings split off, not unlike a penitentiary. Discreet uplighters wired into the varnished brickwork throw up subtle light. Cameras sit unobtrusively – no doubt reassuringly – at corners and angles, their red lights blinking silently. We come to an elevator next to a staircase.
‘Lift or stairs?’ asks Roy.
‘Why have a dog and growl yourself?’
We get in the elevator, made from industrially-toughened glass, with shiny new steel cogs, cables, pulleys and counterweights exposed. Roy pushes the button for the top floor.
As the elevator door opens, Sonny – chewing gum like a piston, brand new Nike tracksuit, bare feet, smelling of eye-stinging aftershave – is out in the hall, waiting to meet us.
‘It’s like fuckin Fort Knox in here, this gaff,’ he says as he gestures us inside.
As we step into the spacious hallway, Sonny playfully slaps Royski on the back as he passes. I notice a bank of monitors by the front door showing the outside of the building and atrium downstairs. Nothing stirs on any of the screens. Sonny points down the hall and I follow Roy into his living room.
It’s strikingly big, surprisingly classy and immaculately clean. Spotless. It’s also simple – parquet flooring and extremely tasteful furniture – more accurately, pieces – white sofas, huge rugs, coffee tables heaped with photographic books, and on the walls still-life photographs and ironic thirties advertisements framed in brushed aluminium. On some shelving units there’s a discreet music system and, on display, antique toys, sailboats and aeroplanes, vintage metal robots painted in primary colours.
Tucked around the corner at one end there’s a pristine, open-plan kitchen and at the other end of the room a huge flat-screen television set has been suspended on the wall. It’s switched on but with the sound muted, showing an old western – Arizona mountain ranges, rock piles, dry dusty riverbeds and hordes of Red Indians appearing over the top of a ridge. John Wayne pulls his famous grimace. The silent movie only increases the spooky, muffled vibe. Except Sonny’s his usual boisterous self, happy I’m impressed.
‘Do you wanna see this gadget, Sonny?’ I ask, holding up the plastic bag.
‘In a minute, pal. What’s the big rush? You got to be someplace?’ asks Sonny, suddenly sounding stressed and preoccupied; no good at disguising his emotions, is Sonny. He’s swerving it in the hope that it will go away.
‘What did this cost you, Sonny?’ I ask. ‘A couple of mill?’
‘I didn’t buy it, not yet. I rent it. I was told to rent it … by the money man.’
That makes sense. The living room has the air of a luxury rental – the sorta place they let to high-flying business executives – which is what Sonny has become, I guess.
Sonny and Roy seem to be communicating in primitive sign language on my blindside – nods and winks and shakes of heads, index fingers over tightly closed lips. I pretend to be distracted by the fixtures and fittings. Sonny’s reading matter gets my attention – a chunky biography of Napoleon on the coffee table. It’s a thousand pages but Sonny’s only managed to battle through the first ten. Inside, on the title page, is a written dedication – To Sonny. Enjoy. Remember the battle is won by the most persevering – signed From your ‘Swell Mob’ Pal. Underneath is a squiggle. I think it says Giles, the smooth lawyer from the Monarch Club. That would make sense – the patronising dedication and illegible signature.
Sonny pushes open two of the sliding glass doors that lead out onto a huge sun deck and beckons me outside to admire the stunning view. The decking is the size of a large London apartment, shaped like the bow of an ocean-going liner, and the view is spectacular – acres of lush and green woods with the towers of the City of London beyond.
‘Good cover for surveillance,’ suggests Royski, like an expert in field craft. ‘Difficult to overlook the property in winter – no cover – but, now in summer …’
I realise I’m still schlepping the tracker around in the service station bag. I’m tempted to lob it over the side. Sonny has set up, on a precision-engineered tripod, a gigantic pair of high-powered binoculars. I go to look through them but it’s all a green blur. I look for the viewfinder.
‘How do I focus these, Sonny?’
He shrugs his shoulders. ‘They ain’t mine, pal. Come with the gaff.’
‘You use them?’
‘There’s nothing to see, is there? Only a few fuckin trees.’
‘That,’ I say with a nod into the haze, ‘is maybe the greatest city in the world.’
‘Is that right?’ says Sonny, rolling his eyes. ‘Like I say, they ain’t my binoculars.’
Sonny spits his gum over the side, and motions for Roy and me to follow him. In the far, shaded corner of the deck someone has laid out a dining table and chairs, with four set places, complete with a linen table cloth, crisp white rolled napkins in holders, silver cutlery, wine and water glasses. Sonny has had some food delivered from a local delicatessen and laid out. Under film, in dainty serving bowls, prepared and ready to go, are chicken breasts cooked with artichoke, olives, garlic and rosemary breads and an assortment of Italian delicacies. A bottle of dry white wine has been uncorked and left to sit in an ice bucket by the side of the table. The wine is a good one. A small bar arrangement, with beer, water and a basket of fruit, has been set up in a solid brick barbecue that’s been built into the edge of the balcony.
‘Four places, Sonny?’
‘Giles might drop by,’ he says with a wink.
I knew Sonny had an ulterior motive. He pulls the film off one of the bowls and starts munching a handful of marinated garlic cloves dripping in olive oil. Sonny is looking straight at me with a hint of unspoken defiance in his eyes – this is a bit of class, bruv, right or wrong? You can’t fuckin deny it. ‘Fuckin handsome,’ he says eventually, as he pushes another handful of garlic cloves into his mouth. ‘An army marches on its stomach. Napoleon said that. Victory belongs to the most persevering.’
‘Meaning?’ I ask.
‘It isn’t the most talented; it’s the most persistent, who wins the day. Last man standing gets the prize.’
I get the vibe that Sonny’s discourse about Napoleon – the well-worn gangster cliché – is something he’s repeating parrot fashion. And the guy who said it – probably Giles – said it with more panache.
‘Don’t be like that, mate. No rush, we got all day. Look at London down there – fucking great ain’t it?’
Sonny peels the film off the rest of the prepared dishes, one by one, rolls it up carefully, into one ball, and then slings it over the side.
‘Try this,’ he says, pointing to one bowl, ‘baby squid, marinated, fuckin lovely.’
Sonny sticks a handful of squid into his mouth, dripping oil onto the cloth. He spots the mess, laughs and bends over to pick up another handful of garlic. Roy is making himself a ham sandwich.
‘This is nice, ain’t it? Have some chicken, it’s lovely. You want anything?’ he asks. ‘You comfortable?’
‘I’m okay. I’ll just pick if that’s okay, Sonny.’
I pick up the tracker in its battered bag. ‘You wanna talk about this?’
They both ignore it. This is a turn-up. Royski, sparky at the best of times, seeing imaginary threats everywhere, is trying to discount a real-live tracker removed from a vehicle on hire to Sonny.
‘See, Sonny,’ I say, ‘I’m curious about that two point seven mill. Remember, Barbados, Curtis, the CBB?’
‘It’s nunna your fuckin business,’ snaps Sonny.
‘I’m going to wash my hands,’ I shrug. ‘Where is it?’
Sonny points. ‘Back where you came in,’ he says with his mouth full.
I go and wash my hands but the bathroom window is open to allow a breeze in. I can hear Sonny hissing at Roy. Sonny can shout in a whisper. I can only make out a few words here and there – pretend – getting back – I don’t know, Roy – you think of something.
When I go back out on the decking they’ve both got the most innocent expressions on their faces. I’m obviously getting grafted here. Sonny cockily shovels more baby squid and garlic cloves in his month while Roy intently studies the bag containing the tracker.
‘See …’ says Roy. ‘This could be industrial espionage … rivals and that …’
‘Really, Roy?’ I say. Sonny’s eyebrows go skywards.
‘See,’ continues Roy, ‘Sonny’s competitors could be looking to find out what he’s up to …’
‘Or it could be the Serious Crime Squad getting busy now that Ted is dead. Creates what is called in police circles a power vacuum. Don’t play me for a cunt, okay? Givin me bollocks about industrial espionage.’
Sonny looks angry but suppresses it. Roy starts to get twitchy. Bridget Granger is the key.
‘It’s all the more reason,’ I tell them, ‘to let Bridget Granger know … if Morty hasn’t already.’ They consider this with long faces. ‘I’m considering my options,’ I add.
‘Meaning?’ asks Sonny, frown appearing.
‘Have I got to spell it out? I ain’t done anything illegal … I’m jumping about on a snide passport. No big deal … I might just bail—’
‘But Ted brought you over special,’ says Roy.
‘Fuckin shut it, Roy,’ barks Sonny. ‘Do you know how ridiculous you sound sometimes?’
Roy’s twitch upgrades. He nibbles his bottom lip.
‘Listen, mate, I told ya,’ says Sonny, ‘Bridget don’t need to know. Why bother her? Her brother’s just died.’
‘Cos she needs to know,’ I say, returning Sonny’s glare. ‘Forewarned is forearmed—’
‘What kinda bollocks is that?’ snaps Sonny.
‘Read yer fuckin history book,’ I say.
‘Have you told Bridget Granger?’ Sonny asks me. ‘Yes or no?’
‘No,’ I reply. ‘But why’s it such a big deal if she knows or not?’
‘It ain’t …’ says Sonny shrugging, ‘It’s just …’
‘Fuckin sounds like it is, gents,’ I say. ‘Listen, if me and Morty have got a tracker on the motor, it’s game over and I’m back to where I came from.’
‘Give us that fuckin tracker here!’ says Sonny, clicking his fingers.
I hand Sonny the tracker. He tips it out onto the table. In daylight it looks very dead. Roy and Sonny crouch down, studying a nondescript, plastic box.
‘Are you two sure that thing’s deactivated?’ I ask.
Roy rolls his eyes and fetches a scanner. He places it next to the tracker. No signal, see, not a peep. They eventually conclude that the law definitely didn’t put that on that motor.
‘How can you be sure?’ I shrug. ‘Someone put it there—’
‘Fuck off, smartarse,’ snaps Sonny. Then he crouches even closer, studying the tracker, starts to slowly shake his head. Then he says, half to himself, half to Roy. ‘This is all your fuckin fault, Royski …’
Roy explodes. ‘Bollocks, you cunt! Who dragged me back from Spain? You did!’
‘Fuck off, Roy!’ snaps Sonny.
‘Don’t talk to me like I’m a cunt, Sonny,’ roars Roy. He steps in close to Sonny’s chest, twitch going full blast, face red. Sonny pushes him backwards. Roy looks instinctively for a weapon. But suddenly a large flock of wood pigeons fly out of a tree. They break cover like they’ve been startled.
‘Wassat?’ says Roy, turning his head, like a gun dog. Alarmed face. The pigeons circle aimlessly overhead.
‘Maybe someone’s walking their dog, Roy,’ I say. ‘You two wanna calm down.’
‘Fuckin ain’t,’ says Roy, like it’s an absolute certainty. ‘Someone’s out there!’
It’s a freeze-frame moment, nobody moves, and then Roy starts moving in slow motion, pure concentration on his face. Another bird flies from the tree. Roy suddenly grabs my arm.
‘Get down! Fuckin get down!’ he says, spilling my drink. Roy grabs Sonny by the arm and pulls him downwards. Roy’s studying the trees, twitch going mad. Their argument is forgotten.
‘What can you see, Roy?’ whispers Sonny.
‘Nothing,’ replies Roy, ‘but I can feel something’s out there.’
I go to stand up. ‘There’s nothing out there.’
Their conciliatory mood has evaporated. ‘Get down, you cunt!’ hisses Sonny.
‘I ain’t burying you if you get shot!’ agrees Roy, studying the trees intently. ‘Could always be gavvers, Sonny, creeping up.’
‘You might be praying its gavvers, Roy, if it’s the other firm.’
‘Who the fuck’s out there?’ I whisper.
‘Fuck! If you hadn’t …’ hisses Sonny at Roy.
‘Well, I did, didn’t I?’ replies Roy. ‘It was your fuckin idea—’
‘Fuck off, Roy, I didn’t tell ya to—’
There’s a rustling in the trees, could be the wind or another pigeon or a squirrel.
‘Let’s get inside,’ says Roy. ‘I don’t like it.’
‘Me neither, Roy,’ says Sonny. Then he turns to me and whispers. ‘What do you think?’
‘That you two know something I don’t.’
‘Let’s move,’ says Roy. He suddenly, like some deranged bodyguard, pulls me from the decking and propels me through the open sliding door. At the very same time Sonny runs towards the door but he slips, knocks over the table, sending chicken breasts and squid, baskets of breads, flying everywhere. Next thing he slides over on a chicken breast, lands with a thud, bounces up again and scurries inside.
Now we sit tight, listening hard. Mundane sounds suddenly sound threatening. I crouch behind a solid wall and catch what they’ve got. Paranoia is contagious. Meanwhile, on the back wall, on the television, in the silent western John Wayne has organised the wagons into a circle and is shooting Apaches off horses.
‘Do we have tools here, Sonny?’ asks Roy. They’re mates again.
‘In the attic, bruv,’ replies Sonny. ‘Sling the you-know down, just in case we gotta trap.’
Roy creeps out the living room, keeping low, looking for cover. Sonny and me wait, still watching the trees. Roy’s only gone seconds before he returns with a heavy holdall. He dives into the bag and pulls out a pair of driving gloves. He p
‘Careful, mate, safety’s on,’ Roy whispers. Roy tosses the pistol over to Sonny, who catches it with both hands. Sonny undoes the safety catch. I realise that Sonny isn’t humouring Roy, when Sonny starts to roll back onto the decking, keeping out of range of snipers. Sonny slowly looks around the corner of the wall like he’s behind enemy lines.
Roy goes into the bag and pulls out a small submachine gun. He starts to crawl back outside onto the decking, studying the tree line, alert to every sound. Roy Burns has gone operational.
Roy and Sonny are communicating with hand signals, creeping across the decking. The woods are deathly quiet again but the pigeons have landed on the roof of the building, gently cooing. This seems to spook Roy – coming under attack from the Hampstead wildlife. The table that Sonny clattered is lying on its side. It don’t look right. The ice bucket is on its side. Food is scattered across the deck – chicken breasts trodden on, baby squid and olive oil in puddles. Slowly birds begin to land and begin nibbling and picking, tearing at the scattered bread till it quickly becomes a feeding frenzy, in complete contrast to the silence coming from the woods – all the birds are over here. We wait and wait, but nothing happens.
‘Roy,’ Sonny whispers over to Roy, ‘let’s get out of here.’
‘You’re right. We’re sitting ducks here, Sonny.’
‘Hit the road. Roy?’ asks Sonny.
Roy nods gently. He’s holding the machine gun tight to his chest. Then he sprints back inside. Sonny crawls back inside, jumps up and pushes the sliding doors shut. Now Sonny is hurrying Roy along, clicking his fingers. Sonny wants to get the fuck out. They march into the hallway and motion for me to follow them.
Lying in the middle of the hallway is a brand new – or seldom used – Gucci executive briefcase that’s been dropped from a height. Directly above it is an access panel that has been pushed up to expose an opening to the loft space. Sonny snatches up the briefcase and holds it across his chest, like some designer religious relic. Roy is checking out the monitors. Not a soul moving.
Viva La Madness by J. J. Connolly / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes