Cat mouse, p.1
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       Cat & Mouse, p.1

          
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Cat & Mouse


  By Jason Vanez

  CAT & MOUSE

  PROLOGUE

  Alfo "The Destroyer" Pitchford lived the kind of life that made people want to kill him, but that wasn't his biggest mistake. It was believing no one would dare to come at him.

  So when his mobile rang at 2.17 in the morning and he answered it to hear his girlfriend screaming about a burglar in her house, the thought that this might be about him didn't enter his head. He had no clue that he had less than an hour to live. He put the phone on the pillow and rubbed his eyes like a sleepy baby. By the time he'd picked up the phone again, the line was silent.

  "You there?" he said.

  "I said are you coming or what? I heard noises."

  "Probably that damn cat of yours," Alfo barked.

  "What fucking cat? There's a fucking robber in my house, Alfo. Come and help."

  He checked the caller ID. It was Lara, not Jane. Jane was the one with the cat.

  "Alfo, I heard movement. Please come." She was a tough bitch, mouthy around her neighbours and a control freak in the sack, but now she sounded like his timid old mother.

  He climbed out of bed. "I'm coming. If there's no one there when I get there, you're taking it up ass." He hung up before she could reply. He would never speak to her again.

  Despite the late hour and the obvious urgency of his task, Alfo took time to dress properly. It wouldn't do to have one of his subjects see him in dour clobber. He slipped on a tight black T-shirt that showed his tight muscles. Jeans with that new fashion of rents and slits, as if he had been attacked by a tiger. His bright white Christian Louboutin shoes. His cornrows still held even after a week, but he ran a toothbrush through his goatee beard to neaten it. Then he checked himself in the mirror. One of his boys had joked that he looked tough, camp, and like a character out of a computer fighting game all at the same time, but Alfo didn't mind all that. He stood out, made an impression on the streets to those who somehow still didn't know who he was. In four hours' time, an early morning jogger would recognise whose bloody corpse he had found because of this outfit.

  He left his flat and got into his black Punto. He now had less than ten minutes to live. He drove slowly, steadily. Clear roads at this hour, but on this estate the junkies roamed like zombies day and night and he didn't want one lurching out of nowhere and honouring him with a trip to the body shop. But he saw none of his customers out and about. A chance right there for a wandering junkie to save him, now gone.

  He also passed a police patrol car that was sitting by the kerb, waiting to pounce on bad guys just for fun. The cops knew Alfo's Punto, but tonight they let him cruise on by. Right there the police had a chance to save him, but they let him go past and onward towards doom. He was sixty two seconds from meeting his killer, and now only an old Italian man could save him.

  He pulled up outside a row of takeaway shops. Got out. Eight seconds until things went bad for Alfo. One of the shops was still open. Alfo rapped the window and waved at Mario, who often threw him a free pizza when he came to visit his girl. Tonight he threw Alfo two extra seconds of life, but no more. Alfo started to jog down an alley between Mario's shop and the one next door, and that was that. Nobody left to help. Nothing left to knock Alfo off his path towards disaster. Five seconds.

  Alfo the Destroyer. His CV was impressive: enforcer, pimp, drug dealer, a right Jack of all illegal trades. When the police found this guy dead, they weren't going to be surprised, and they weren't going to care. No family member was going to sit at a press conference surrounded by grim-faced detectives and plead for justice. There would be no televised reconstruction showing his last movements. No cop was going to be at his desk until four in the morning, droopy-eyed but determined. If the police got his killer for the murder, it would be because he made a ghastly mistake like dropping his driver's licence on top of the body.

  The killer stepped out of a recessed fire exit in the wall of the chicken shop, where he had waited after he'd kicked in the side entrance of Alfo's girlfriend's ground-floor flat, just a few metres further down. He wore black biker leathers and a black helmet, and all that Alfo saw as he jogged past the fire exit was a flicker of shadows amongst other shadows. Enough to catch his eye, but not to spark concern. So when he felt a pain in his gut and his legs go weak, he did not know that he had been attacked. He sprawled on the littered concrete, cursed, rolled onto his back, and tried to sit up.

  "What the fuck?" he moaned as he raised a hand close to his face. There was enough light for him to see the smear of liquid on his hand. The pain in his gut told the rest of the story.

  He looked up as the black shadow moved away from the greater mass inside the doorway and took shape as a man. A man with a knife. And then Alfo's eyes showed fear for the first time in a long time.

  "Chopper," he croaked. He tried to get to his feet, but his equilibrium was gone along with the strength in his legs. He feet slipped on concrete made slick by his own blood. He tumbled onto his back once more and stared up at the man in biker gear. He had heard about the killer called Chopper. Everyone around this part of London had. But the truth was he had never believed the guy was real. An underworld hitman who dressed in black biker leathers and rode a customised motorbike? Yeah, sure. This was some fucker playing copycat. One of his enemies playing a game. And with that thought, his fear took a hike.

  "You're a dead man," he tried to shout, in part to show his resolve and in part to try to alert someone. Game-playing copycat or not, this guy meant him harm. Had already done him harm. But the shout came out as little more than a croak. The effort made his head spin. He tried to sit up again, but couldn't. His blood was hot where it was smeared all over him, but inside he was starting to feel cold. Bad sign. With the last of his energy, he filled his lungs and tried again: "You're a dead man!"

  "Maybe," Chopper said. His voice was low, maybe for effect, maybe because of the helmet, maybe because Alfo's brain wasn't hearing things right. "But I'll never know until it's too late. That's how it works, Mr. Pitchford."

  Right then this whole thing became real. No way would one of his enemies have been so polite. The fear came back like a tsunami that washed away all hope. He felt himself starting to slip away as he accepted the inevitable, but managed to release two final words that came out as little more than gasps:

  "Who? Why?"

  "If you mean who sent me to kill you, I don't know," Chopper said, bending over him, bringing that knife closer. "And I never care why."

  ****

  Many a time some employee has been angry enough at his boss to consider smacking the guy and jacking his job in. Dale was one such guy. He worked a couple of morning shifts in the cafe at Athena Supermarket, the only male who did, and he had just been told to report to the office because he'd been caught spitting in a plate of food. The plate's intended recipient had been an old lady who shopped there every Monday, bought exactly one week's worth of supplies, and did her rounds along the aisles after a Famous Five breakfast. Last week she had complained about the beans being cold, so this week Dale put warm phlegm in her beans, and Mr Marsh saw him doing it through the hatch between the servery and the kitchen. Dale had threatened to kick Mr Marsh's ass after the guy was gone, and this had gotten him a round of laughter from the ladies working alongside him.

  So when Dale got into the office, he sat before the desk and looked not at James Marsh, but behind him, at the tiny bookshelf that held just a few paperback novels and something that looked like a picture frame that was dusty and tucked away in there as if it were a book. Above the book that obscured most of the frame, he saw a green-blue emblem and the words commando training centre, and ROYAL MARINES, and THE PARKER TROPHY. Just like the laughing ladies had said.

  Dale felt his stomach lurch a littl
e. He'd heard that the boss had been in the army way back, but had doubted it because Marsh never mentioned it. The way that picture frame was stacked in there with the books, mostly hidden, said James Marsh wasn't one for showing off. Dale imagined it would be just like a former Marine Commando to not feel the need to.

  "And here you are again, Dale," Marsh said. "In that chair, facing me. On time today, though."

  Dale brought his eyes down to the man in question, but remained silent.

  "So what was that about, Dale?" Marsh said, leaning back in his chair, arms folded.

  "Why don't you suck my dick?" had been the planned first response from Dale. He didn't know what the Parker Trophy was all about, but he damned sure knew commandoes didn't win awards for tidiest locker or good timekeeping. So his quickly revised opener was, "Sorry, Mr. Marsh, it's just that that lady insulted me last Monday. I didn't think. I just got annoyed."

  Marsh lifted a pen from the cluttered desk and spun it around his fingers. That was the only weapon these bastards in suits could threaten him with, Dale figured. A pen to write him up with. "That was Mrs Taylor, Dale. Mrs Taylor was a midwife way back. She actually delivered half the people who live on this street. Lisa from the bakery, the one whose daughter you keep asking out, she was one of them. If Lisa had caught you doing that, instead of me, she'd have torn your eyes out. Think yourself lucky it was only me."

  Dale tried not to look at that picture frame. Part of his brain was telling him the guy sitting across from him was old now: early forties, wife and kid, soft, weak, his army days long behind him. Gun swapped for a pen. Dale could still give the guy shit. But if he was wrong? Marsh was still tall, obviously, and not fat. Still had his dark hair, youthful eyes, and those nimble fingers that juggled apples to impress the checkout girls and twirled pens like mini batons when he was in boss-mode, which wasn't often. Maybe the guy still had some skills. And wasn't the army a brotherhood? Maybe Marsh still had close friends from those days, guys who wouldn't mind grouping up to teach a lesson to some young punk who'd picked a fight with their pal. He decided to be cautious. The old cronies in the cafe had laughed at Dale's threat against this guy for a reason.

  "Are you listening, Dale?"

  Marsh had continued to talk. Dale had missed it. Unsure what to say, he just nodded.

  "We're not the only supermarket serving this estate, Dale. It's only half a mile to the nearest major rival, that new Tesco Express on Church Drive. Then there's the Seven Sisters' market. The Seven Sisters underground is five minutes away..."

  The lecture continued. Some bullshit about how they needed to keep their customers. Exactly the sort of crap Dale had expected to hear. He lost interest again and stifled a yawn, then wished he hadn't. Couldn't get in trouble for a natural bodily function, after all. He looked at the detritus scattered on the desk, at charts and staff notices pinned on the walls, and he relaxed. This guy was no fucking commando any more. He was a suit behind a desk. Fuck him.

  "…You understand?"

  Understand what? He'd missed the speech again. So he just nodded again. And felt his anger rising. He didn't need a pep talk. He was beginning to doubt that this middle-aged guy could take him in a fight. He yearned for a fight. He was good at it. He liked fighting. The cops had said so. His own mother had said so. Plenty of wannabe tough guys down the local pubs knew it. Court records proved it. But he held his tongue, because of Friday night. In fact, thinking about Friday night started him worrying. What the hell had he been thinking? He couldn't lose this job, not now. He needed the warehouse shift he had on Friday nights. So he bit down on his pride and apologised.

  Marsh seemed satisfied with the apology, totally unaware of the vile taste it had left in Dale's mouth. He stopped twirling his pen. Boss-mode seemed to slip out of him. "So here's what we're going to do..."

  A few minutes later, Dale left the office. He went to the cafe and collected his bag, and told the ladies there that, nah, he wasn't in trouble, but had been given the afternoon off to calm down. And they believed him, because nobody had been fired from Athena Supermarket in over three years. He went outside, into the morning sunshine, and pulled out his mobile phone. He dialled a number from memory. He was quite scared now, because of Friday night. He stared across the road, at the Sandhorse Estate, the lifeblood of Athena Supermarket, and wondered where in that working-class maze lay the home of the silly old bitch who'd caused all this. He wanted to go there tonight and spit right in her face, never mind her beans.

  "It's me," he said when the call was answered with a stiff Yes? "There might be a problem. I might be getting fired."

  No response for a few seconds, then just one word spoken: "Explain."

  The phone was shaking against his ear, Dale's fear increasing rapidly. He spoke in a nervous, broken voice, while cursing himself for being such an idiot with that woman's beans, or at least for getting caught.

  "I got in trouble and the assistant manager sent me home for the afternoon. Nowt official, but he's going to talk to the big boss tomorrow morning, when the guy comes in. A disciplinary. I...I might get fired."

  Again that silence. Then: "We need you there Friday night."

  Dale shrugged, as if they could see it. "Sorry. We'll see tomorrow." He had never had a problem with these people and they paid him well, but he suspected they were the sort you didn't want to piss off. And his getting fired would certainly piss them off.

  After another silence the voice spoke again. "Turn up to work tomorrow as if nothing happened. Mention nothing about the disciplinary to anyone."

  "I can't just do that. What about the manager? If I just turn up -"

  The voice cut in sharply: "Don't worry about him."

  Then the line went dead.

  ****

  Einar was stepping up to the smiling ticket desk agent at London City Airport, to book a seat on the next plane to Nice, France, when his phone beeped. A text message.

  While he read, the lady continued to smile. She smiled at him as he stepped away from the desk. One less annoying customer to deal with today. Einar rushed out of the terminal and found the car rental building. The receptionist looked concerned as he approached her, but was pleasantly surprised when he said he wanted back the Audi A1 Sportback that he'd dropped off just an hour ago.

  He fired up the Satnav. It was eight miles to his destination, a gym on a side street off Northumberland Avenue, near Trafalgar Square. He spent some time trying to find a parking space, then made his way to the address on his text message. The entrance was a recessed glass door in a row of such and he found it only because of a sticker on the glass showing a cartoon man struggling under a barbell. There was an intercom, which unnerved him because he didn't want to have to talk his way inside. But when he pressed it, no voice asked him what he wanted. The door simply clicked unlocked.

  Einar took a tall flight of thin wooden steps to the next floor, where another door led into a corridor. Immediately to his left was a door that said LOCKERS. Five metres to the right, the corridor opened out into a vast area with exercise machines and thumping music and men grunting as they built muscle. He couldn't see a reception desk anywhere and there were no cameras on the walls, so he quickly pushed through the door marked LOCKERS before anyone saw him.

  The changing room stank of sweat. The lockers were tall and arranged in aisles. In each aisle was a long bench. There was a shower area at the back. Half-dressed men were on the benches, naked ones in the showers. There was laughter and swearing. Einar's suit got a few smiles, and his lack of a bag a couple of concerned stares. But nobody paid him attention for long, which was good. Even executives liked to keep fit, apparently.

  He went to the furthest aisle, the one by the long streetside window. There was just one guy on the bench in this aisle, and he was too busy drying his ball with a grimy towel to notice as Einar sat and felt under the wood. His fingers found a key taped right where the text message had said it would be: directly across from the pane of glass with a NO SMOKI
NG sticker in the corner.

  Einar took the key to the locker matching its number, 104. Inside locker was nothing but a brown envelope and a stench of ancient sweat. Pushing up close to the locker to shield the envelope, he opened it without extracting it. There was enough light pouring over his shoulder for him to peruse the contents.

  There was a photo of a man in a shirt and trousers, caught in the act of leaving a building with glass double doors. Looked like his place of work. There was a yellow sticky note at the bottom that gave the name of the condemned man, the mark. On a separate sticky note was the job description in script too small to read in the dim light. He had to peel it away and hold it close to his face.

  Method: "No Preference." That was good. If the mark had been targeted by people who could be connected to him, Einar would have been instructed to make the death look like an accident, or the work of someone else. Always a pain in the ass. But in this case the paymasters did not fear police scrutiny, so Einar could set the kill up however he liked. Use his imagination.

  Payment: "£25,000." Not even close to the highest fee Einar had been paid, but some of his kills had involved convoluted planning, and the fees reflected that. But this was a "no preference" job, a simple murder, and for that £25,000 was adequate.

  Einar furrowed his eyebrows as he saw the final line on the note. This was a first. He read it again, to be sure he had it right. It said the job was "not yet green-lit" and he would receive a go or abort order at 5 o'clock today, which was three hours from now. Did he understand this correctly? He was not yet hired? Come 5 o'clock, he would either get the confirmation to go ahead, or be told not to bother? He was supposed to wait around for three hours? For a job he might not get?

  Einar was incensed. He had been in this game a long time, and he knew the "not yet green-lit" claim was a lie. The paymasters wanted him to think that the hit on the mark might yet be cancelled, but he knew the truth was different: they were shopping around, trying to find a better deal, as if they sought car insurance rather than a contract killer. Einar would get a green light only if they didn't find someone to do the job cheaper. It explained why he'd been given no addresses for the mark: to make sure he didn't kill the guy early and demand payment.

 
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