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Viva la madness, p.31
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       Viva La Madness, p.31

           J. J. Connolly
 

  I manoeuvre myself out of his sight line. He turns nonchalantly, all in one movement, checking out the street again, walking backwards … He’s thinking he’s clean away, breathing out, relaxing …

  Now Stevie reaches a traffic light but this time he stops, waiting for the little green man. He’s talking to a young woman who’s waiting as well. She’s a tourist – American I’d wager – with a group, doing the Old World tour. Stevie’s doing small talk – where you from, America? Stevie’s bouncing from foot to foot, excited. The day couldn’t get better. She smiles, instinctively puts both arms around her handbag, hugs it to her chest. Might be from Bumfuck, Idaho, but she can spot a wrong ’un. Steve’s a frog. She’s a princess. Don’t kiss frogs. The rest of her party is nervous, thinking Stevie’s out to rob them all. He’d be outraged if he thought for a second … Theft, sir? How dare you? They’re still waiting on the light.

  Got to make my move before he hits the tube, far too public. Better make it personal with Stevie O’Malley. It’s now or never, bud. Use the Yanks as a distraction; get on Stevie’s blind side. Time to move. My heartbeat’s pumping. Think of the consequences if …

  Suddenly a gent in a dark suit and large wraparound sunglasses bumps past me. His shoulder collides with mine. I go to say something but he strides on. Big strides. The guy’s wearing leather gloves – gloves in August? Hang on … he marches with purpose, straight towards Stevie. He’s ten foot away. His right arm comes up. His left hand comes up to meet it. Now he’s got both hands now on – oh fuck, a shooter! The guy stops dead, bends his knees a touch …

  He shoots Stevie twice in the temple, rapid succession – doff, dooff – using a silencer. Blows Stevie’s hat off – clean fuckin off. Stevie crumples, falls. Lifeless. Red mist where his head was. Dead before he hits the floor. Executed.

  Nothing moves. The Princess is covered in Stevie’s blood, outta Stevie’s brain. Then a woman faints. Another tries to scream but no sounds emerges – just a strange, low, painful wail. The gunman has disappeared, vanished completely. Stevie’s been slotted by a professional. The law are gonna be all over this place in seconds. If they find that wallet it’s trouble … I need it away from Stevie O’Malley. Away from a crime scene. Exhibit in a murder trial. They’d run those cards through a reader, get all their data in seconds … This is the Metropolitan Police Force … no joke …

  I begin walking fast. A large puddle of the darkest crimson blood is flowing from Stevie’s head. I’m straight through the gawping crowd. They hold hands to faces, bewildered, trying to comfort themselves. The blood-covered Princess is screaming hysterically now, still clutching her bloodstained handbag. What happened? What just happened?

  I crouch down, pretending to be a doctor testing for a pulse in Stevie’s neck. Trying not to get blood on my shoes. His eyes are still open. His death mask still registers shock. Stevie thought he’d cracked it one minute, dead the next. I shut his eyes, half expecting them to bounce back open – being from a family of awkward bastards.

  Maybe you shouldn’t touch him suggests a forensically aware punter. I turn and tell him, assertively, that we need to establish that life is extinct. The guy looks slightly ashamed but I don’t want him looking into my face too much. I duck my head down.

  People take orders from people who they perceive to have authority. Get these women away – screaming and weeping – I tell busy punter, the know-all-cunt. The wallet is, amazingly, still in Stevie’s hand. I coax it from Stevie’s grip. He resists, a little. I knew he would.

  I need that wallet in my pocket, not in some evidence bag – the telltale break in the case. Just the thing those Scotland Yard detectives love. I test the pulse in the wrist, for appearances. Then I palm the wallet like a card cheat, shaking my head and shouting for space and air.

  Then I tell the busy cunt, shout up at him, to ring the police. He’s rung. Well, ring them again! All eyes turn to him. In one hit I slip the wallet down the front of my trousers. I stand up, shaking my head, muttering about waste, muttering about too late for a doctor. My hand’s over my face, rubbing my eyes, pulling downwards in frustration, distorting my features, avoiding recognition – now or in the witness box. Stevie would have heartily approved – needs must, bruv, couldn’t have ya getting swagged. Get on your toes, quick sharp. I hear the first sirens. Slip away quick, son. You got the prize, job done. Stevie would have applauded. Bewilderment, confusion and chaos; Stevie O’Malley died like he lived. Roy’s raincoat is a write-off, covered in claret, fit only for the bin or the forensics department. I’m about to disappear when … fuck!

  The bill from the Cosmopolitan Hotel bar is in the inside pocket of that raincoat. Big clue. I crouch back down. I slip a hand into the pocket of the blood-spattered coat. I find the bill straight away and palm it. I move my hand from the raincoat to my own pocket, with less grace than before. An onlooker tumbles that I’ve dipped the pocket. He starts squeaking. ‘Did you just go in his pocket?’ he screams. ‘Did you see that?’ he says to another onlooker.

  He says to me. ‘You took something from his pocket, I saw you!’

  ‘You didn’t, mister,’ I say, and regret it. ‘You’ve made a mistake.’

  ‘Show me your pocket!’ he demands. ‘Show me your pocket then!’

  ‘Fuck off!’ I snap before I can stop myself. ‘Fuck right off!’

  ‘Are you even a doctor?’ He answers his own question. ‘You’re not a doctor at all, are you?’

  ‘Does he look like he needs a doctor?’ I say, pointing at Stevie.

  He takes a step towards me. ‘I think we should wait for the police,’ he says, going to grab my arm. I shrug him off but he’s looking into my face, preparing the description he’s gonna put in his statement. I wanna step back and nut him but I’m edging backwards. Everyone else is transfixed on Stevie’s dead body, or hugging one another for comfort, but he’s silently pointing at me, remembering me. Attention to detail. New arrivals are pushing through the crowd – what happened? Fuck! Then wishing they hadn’t.

  Q. Why did you do that? Look at the dead man – his head half gone?

  A. Dunno. Was. Both. Fucking. Bizarre. And. Stupid.

  I’m moving backwards all the time. The wallet sits awkwardly down the front of my strides. I’m hoping it doesn’t fall down my leg. That could be trouble …

  A police car sweeps into the street, almost knocking people over, sirens blaring. It skids to a halt. Two shirt-sleeved cozzers jump out, both with semi-automatic rifles tight across their chests. It makes sense – reports of a shooting, make that random shooting. Could be a lunatic on the loose. They see it for what it is straight away – a murder inquiry. Another cozzer jumps out, on the radio the whole time, whistling up reinforcements. The three of them push people back, set up a tight perimeter. Without panic – well-mannered assertiveness – nothing more to see. I’m told to leave, don’t need telling twice. Mister Busy is badgering the cozzer with the radio, pointing in my direction. The cozzer is taking no notice, telling him to get back, out of the way, please, sir, right now, please, sir.

  I imagine Stevie telling me to stroll away nice and easy. And burn them clothes. New address, bruv, quick-sharp. I’m doing a Roy; thinking Steve’s ghost is cheering my getaway from the other side. I back away slowly, inconspicuously, looking over the cozzer’s shoulder the whole time, like I’m arriving not departing. Cozzer’s got his arms wide, sweeping all the onlookers, and potential witnesses, up the street and away.

  Please move back. Show’s over. Nothing to see.

  Q. When confusion reigns?

  A. Chaos is your friend.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

  CRUEL IRONIES

  Walk fast but not too fast, straight into the hotel lobby and the lift. Don’t look right or left. I hit the button. Retrieve the wallet from down my strides. Open it. The cash is gone – no surprise, in Stevie’s kick, no doubt, but the cards look intact. Gotta get gone, though, get across town. Alibis are no good; ain’t even meant to be h
ere. Sort the nodder out later. You have to be a bit sociopathic, sometimes, to get through this life. How the fuck did Santos find me? Was that his handiwork? Wouldn’t be Miguel’s. If Santos wanted to ping me he coulda slipped in the room. If a madhead like Stevie can sneak in, Santos’ crew would find it easy. I think them bullets were meant for me.

  Out the lift, sharp right, down the hall. Chambermaid’s trolley parked up the corridor. I walk past my room – the Do Not Disturb sign dangling off the door handle – and over to the trolley. The maid is working three doors down. I take what I need. Heavy-duty sprays, cloths, rubber gloves, then double back to my own room. I slip the keycard in, with a moment of hesitation … then enter.

  Jenna is gone; there’s no sign of her. I take off my clothes, put on the gloves and clean the room. Every surface. Paranoid? I don’t want my DNA or prints hanging around. Go heavy with the bleach. Clean everything that doesn’t move. When I’m done I run the shower over my head and comb my hair. Overload the cologne; looking presentable but feeling debauched. Where did Jenna go? Double-check everything. Making good time. Time to get icy calm. Deep breaths. Can hear sirens down below. But if I don’t check out properly it could be conspicuous … If I was to just disappear the hotel might report me missing. The police might even think I’m the victim of the shooting … They’d go to work on the credit card the reservation was made with and that could attract unwanted attention.

  Everything in the holdall. Travel light. Get dressed in different clothes. I head out. Downstairs in lift. Am I walking straight into Old Bill? The lobby is empty. We’re five minutes from the scene. I tell the receptionist I need to check out.

  ‘Any problems, sir?’ she asks.

  ‘Like what?’ I say, startled.

  ‘With the room?’

  ‘Oh, no,’ I reply.

  ‘Only you’re booked in indefinitely.’

  ‘I fancied a change of scenery.’

  She laughs a corporate laugh. I tell her sadly there’s been a change of plan. Not exactly a lie. She asks for the credit card I used to book the room. Could be a problem. I tell her my human resources department takes care of these things. She scratches her head. But if you tell me the last four digits …

  She does and I go into the wallet and check the card numbers, pull out the one I need. It’s got more than traces of congealed blood on it – a nasty streak of incriminating evidence – fuck knows how it got there. I almost drop the card. I ask to check the items on the bill. Some go on expenses … I’m sweating. I ask for a tissue. She points at a box on the desk. I wipe the card while concentrating on the itemised bill. The card is gleaming, literally presentable. I hand it to her. She sweeps it through a reader, hands it back, no problem. She hands me an envelope with my receipts and bills, and a customer survey – did I enjoy my stay? Would I recommend it? Could win a spectacular prize in their draw.

  But I’m marching – out the door, looking for geezers in dark suits with guns. I dodge the taxi rank and walk, not really knowing where I’m heading. Ten minutes up the road I dodge into a payphone and ring Morty’s work phone. Sunday morning he’ll know it’s an emergency, condition black. I need a laylow. Till I know the score.

  Morty answers the phone, sleepy, irritated. Someone done one up close, in the nut, who was wearing the fella’s coat. Mistaken identity. Was meant to be me.

  ‘Get a hat. And glasses – any glasses – from a chemist. Don’t be a tart. Get a tube two clicks north of where you met the twitchy fella the other day. Don’t bring a mess. Turn left out the station, do another one, then turn into the first left you see, there’s a square, walk to the far end.’

  ‘What’s the square called?’

  ‘Not over the air. I’ll see you there.’

  ‘I’ll ring if I get lost.’

  ‘Not on this phone. It’s gone.’

  The phone goes dead. Go to the Angel, Islington, sit in a square, wait on Mort.

  Thirty minutes later, sitting in his motor, after I’ve confessed to the meet with Jenna, given him a blow-by-blow account of the shooting of Stevie O’Malley and my escape from the hotel, Mister Mortimer asks me, ‘What are you?’

  ‘A cunt,’ I am forced to reply.

  Morty shakes his head. He’s still dressed top-show but I don’t think he was off to church. ‘Are you sure it was Stevie O’Malley that got popped?’

  ‘I never forget a face, Mort.’

  ‘Fuck!’ screams Morty, most out of character. ‘Listen, you say nothing to Sonny, or Roy, or Ted, okay? Not yet, we need to think this through.’

  ‘I’m saying nothing, Mort,’ I say. ‘I’m meant to be dead.’

  ‘What do you fuckin want? Fuckin counselling?’ says Morty, looking at me in disbelief. ‘This could get worse – the O’Malleys might think you had something to do with it.’

  The O’Malley tribe will soon be on the loose, looking for the people who shot their kid brother – a bizarre bonding experience. They won’t be listening to reasonable argument, that Stevie was the architect of his own demise. If they find out we’re even remotely involved they’ll be looking for blood, or blood money – a drop of compensation for their most heartfelt loss.

  I knew Stevie’s older brother, Gerry – who’ll be either MIA or banged-up somewhere – from early childhood. We were at infants’ school together, lived in the same block of flats, so I knew his layabout, alkie father – too heavy for light work, too light for heavy work. Also knew his bruised saint of a mother and all his big piss-poor family. The Old Bill was always turning up, blue lights flashing, because of the eruptions going on in their tiny flat. The whole family would turn on the cozzers and chase them away mob-handed. They’d be slinging anything that came to hand – furniture, pots, pans, beds, chairs, flaming mattresses – off the balcony onto the patrol cars below. In the end the law would only go in with riot gear, to drag away one of the brothers. To the other residents it was a nuisance, but to us kids it was cheap entertainment. A huge family of eleven, the older O’Malleys were all mad alcoholics while the younger ones were lost to the brown and the white.

  Morty is driving and he’s livid; not a good combo. You’d think it was him they’d tried to shoot. He’s seriously berating me for even entertaining Jenna, can’t be sidetracked by accounts of her expertise. For once he don’t wanna know. He tells me – do not tell Sonny and Roy, till it becomes irritating. It doesn’t register with him that I’m meant to be dead. Morty suggests that maybe Stevie had enemies.

  ‘Mort, geezer was a pro. Was a proper wet job.’

  ‘Then you had a lucky escape.’

  Morty drives in circles. Eventually he takes me to a safe apartment in a mansion block in Swiss Cottage, complete with underground car park so the inhabitants can slip in and out without anyone seeing. Gents in my world love an underground car park.

  The apartment is sterile but stocked up with frozen food and gallons of drink. There’s videos and a thin layer of dust on everything, plus a few scattered cobwebs. Nobody’s lived here for months – it’s soulless but functional, the safe house every firm has tucked. You could live here indefinitely but it would drive you crazy.

  ‘What are you gonna tell those two when they ask you why you moved?’ asks Morty, and as he does his phone begins to ring. He looks at the ID on the phone.

  ‘Talk of the devil … it’s Sonny.’ He answers the phone, ‘Yeah?’ He listens, a curious expression breaking out. ‘Yeah, he’s here. Why do you ask? A few minutes away … Now? Not the park? Why? Show me what, exactly? Don’t get all fuckin cryptic with me.’

  Morty finishes the call and looks even more puzzled.

  ‘Sonny want us to come over to his gaff, right now, wants to show us something.’

  ‘Show us what?’

  ‘Dunno, wouldn’t say …’

  ‘What about—’

  ‘Don’t worry, I’ll buy Roy a new raincoat,’ says Mort. ‘What Roy wants with a fuckin raincoat down in Marbella is beyond me.’

  As me and Mor
ty enter Sonny’s des-res the huge plasma TV is booming – rolling news – but the screen shows a flickering image in freeze-frame, like it’s been cued, ready to go, four zeros in a neat row in the bottom right-hand corner. I get a nauseous feeling in my guts. Unseen reporters are shrieking – Bogus doctor … sneak thief … police have not identified the victim … robbing the dead … callous beyond belief … part of the execution squad … speculation …

  Roy stands to attention, holding a remote control, with a court martial face.

  ‘What’s it all about, Sonny?’ asks Morty, but he’s tumbled that our news embargo is over.

  ‘Sit down, get comfy,’ says Sonny, indicating the plush sofas. ‘Maestro … Mister Burns,’ he says with a flourish, ‘if you would, sir …’

  Roy pushes the play button. The screen is filled with news footage of me removing the wallet and bar bill. It doesn’t look good. The anchorman is suggesting that the perpetrator, i.e. me, is robbing the dead. The station is running the footage, repeatedly, on a loop, using all their trickery to blow up the footage so it’s pixellated. Roy has recorded it.

  ‘The footage was recorded by a tourist,’ says Sonny with a certain amount of glee. ‘A Japanese one … one of those camcorders. Personally, I think it’s a fuckin liberty.’

  ‘Liberty,’ echoes Roy.

  ‘Is nothing fuckin sacred? Point a fuckin camera at anything, some people. You could sue.’

  ‘This is a recording, yeah?’ says Roy. ‘You getting it?’

  ‘Loud and clear, Roy,’ I say.

  Sonny is studying the footage, waiting for something … Sonny clicks his fingers. Dry and crisp. Roy hits the pause button. The screen is filled with a grainy image – my close-up.

  ‘See …’ says Sonny, pointing, ‘I reckon that’s you.’

  ‘Could be,’ I reply lamely.

 
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