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The Fifteenth Nick Sharman Thriller
By Mark Timlin
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 1998 Mark Timlin
All rights reserved.
We got to the pub in Waterloo where I'd arranged to meet Ray Miller at ten minutes before noon. His dark blue Aston Martin Vantage was parked on a meter outside. He was early. I knew he'd be early. He was keen to see me and hear what I had to say. We stopped opposite, maybe twenty yards up the street, on the right hand side. It was raining. Hard silver drops that looked like coins and bounced back off the black tarmac of the road. It always seemed to be fucking raining then. There were few people about in the deluge, even though it was a business day, and those that were, were anonymous under umbrellas or dodging from shop doorway to shop doorway as if wary of snipers. That was funny. Or maybe it wasn't. 'That's the place,' I said, pointing across the street. 'That's his car.'
The radio had been tuned into Capital Gold during the drive and Albert and Freeze had sung along to all the hits and more coming through the car speakers and didn't improve them one little bit. But at least it showed they were enjoying themselves, which is more than I could say for myself. I hate the whole concept of gold stations. I detest the geriatric DJs and the computer-programmed records. Shit. How many times can you listen to 'Good Vibrations' before your brain rots?
'Good. You've done extremely well, Nicky,' said Adult Baby Albert, punching off the radio and looking through the windscreen that was dappled with water and made the world outside look lopsided. The wipers slapped back and forth like metronomes, and about every three strokes the rubber squealed on the glass and set my teeth on edge. 'When he comes out we hit him hard.' Then he turned his bulk in his seat and looked at me. 'And you can watch your mate die.'
Not that Ray Miller was exactly my mate. In fact, not my mate at all. Just someone I'd met in the way of business. But I didn't particularly want to see him wasted. Especially by this crew. Especially because of me. 'Fuck off,' I said.
Mr Freeze leant over the back of the driver's seat and casually slapped me round the face with his gloved hand so that my nose started bleeding. 'Shut up, cunt,' he said in his horrible, raspy voice. 'Or we do you too. Now.'
I was sitting in the back of a red Jaguar XJ6 with my hands manacled to a metal ring that had been clumsily welded to the side of the bodywork. I wasn't the first to suffer this fate apparently, as there was a rusty red crust on the leather upholstery of the seat under the weld. I wondered what had happened to the owner or owners of the blood. Nothing pleasant, I was certain. The car smelt bad inside. Neither Albert nor Freeze were exactly big on personal hygiene, but it wasn't just that. The motor stunk of fear. Old fear. It was ground into the carpets and upholstery like the smell of too many cigarettes that wouldn't go away.
'Speak to him,' said Albert to me. 'Get him out in the street.'
'What shall I say?' I asked, playing dumb.
'You'll think of something. Busk it.'
'And if I don't?'
'We've still got the bolt cutters.' He jabbed the redial button of the cellular phone he was carrying that I'd used to arrange the meeting with Ray Miller earlier, then stuck the instrument in my face. I didn't need reminding about the cutters, or what Albert was prepared to do with them. They were under the front seat, their blades coated with same muck as the leather beside me. Somebody's blood. Somebody's life. And it would be mine unless I did what they said.
Ray answered on the first ring and, like the coward I was, I did as I had been ordered.
'Sharman,' I said.
'Where are you?'
'Is Sharon there?'
Albert made a wind-up sign with his finger. 'We've got to talk, Ray,' I said.
'I'm waiting for you,' he replied.
'Not in there. Out here.'
'Is something wrong?'
'No. It's fine. Come out. I'll pick you up.'
'OK,' he said and cut me off. I felt like Judas.
I looked over the road. The door to the pub opened and Ray appeared. He was wearing a mackintosh that made him look twice his size.
'There he is,' said Freeze, and Adult Baby Albert tossed the phone in Freeze's lap, reached under his coat and pulled out the Hämmerli .22. Freeze restarted the engine as Ray stopped at the kerb looking for me.
He scoped the street through the downpour looking for my car, as Freeze snorted, slapped the Jag into gear, put his foot down hard on the gas and with a scream of rubber from the drive wheels drove straight across the road. He slammed on the brakes a moment later and the big car rocked to a halt on its springs as Albert rolled down the electric window, poked the silenced target pistol through the gap and calmly fired three times. I saw the bullets whack into the material of Ray's coat and the expression of surprise on his face as he staggered back and fell on the wet pavement where the rain lashed down on to his still body. Freeze hit the accelerator again and the big motor fishtailed away, leaving Ray lying there, almost before anyone noticed what had happened.
'Well done, Albert,' said Freeze, as the car skidded round the first left-hand corner we came to, almost clipping a post office van parked there. 'One more under the belt.'
'You bastards,' I said as I fought to keep from sliding on to the floor. 'You didn't give him a chance.'
'You were the one spoke to him on the phone,' said Albert. 'You stitched him up to protect your own skin. But it's not going to save you. You still have to die.'
I said nothing. He was right, of course.
'See, Freeze,' Albert went on, 'people will do anything to hang on to a few more precious moments of life. Anything. Betray. Lie. Cheat. Steal. Humanity. I have no time for it.'
'That's obvious, you fat sack of shit,' I said.
Albert leant round again and pointed the gun at my head. 'Shut up, Nicky,' he said, 'or you won't even live another minute.'
I shut up and watched the rain outside the car as we sped down the Old Kent Road and, not for the first time, wondered why the hell I did what I did.CHAPTER 2
It was raining when it all started, and it was raining when it all ended. It rained a lot that spring and summer, although every time I turned on the TV, or switched on the radio, or picked up a newspaper, there were dark warnings of drought and global warming. But it seemed to rain a lot to me. Maybe I was in a parallel universe. Come to think of it now, I'm sure I was. It was the strangest time I've ever known, and believe me I've known some. Dark days of storms and floods and people who had stepped from a nightmare. And other people too. Decent people who needed my help, and the ones who saved my life.
Take my friend Charlie, for instance.
Charlie the mechanic who'd become Charlie the used-car guy and had supplied me with a long stream of motors over the years, some of which had ended up in the great used-car lot in the sky, mainly, sad to say, due to my carelessness, and the way I earned my living. If you could call it living.
One afternoon a couple of months back he'd given me a call.
'If this is about my outstanding bill —' I said.
'Forget the bill,' he interrupted.
'No. Not permanently. Just temporarily. I need to talk to you.'
'I can't tell you over the phone. You doing anything tonight?'
'How about a bevvy?'
'Sounds OK. Where?'
'You know that little bar in Brixton. Back of the town hall.'
'Sure I know it.'
'I'll be there round seven.'
'OK, Charles,' I said. 'I'll see you there.'
I got to the bar at the designated hour; Charlie was sitting at a table in the raised area at the back listening to Count Suckle on the sound system and staring at Sheryl Crow on the big screen TV with the sound turned down. I got two bottles of Bud from the bar and joined him. He looked unhappy, all wrapped up in his sheepskin coat like a teddy bear who'd just been abandoned by its owner. 'Hello, Charlie,' I said, plonking a beer bottle down next to its twin in front of him and hauling out my Silk Cut. 'What's new? You look pissed off. Did you get beat up on a deal for a nearly new Range Rover Vogue?'
'You won't believe me if I tell you,' he said, tearing his eyes away from Sheryl and clinking bottles with me.
'Try me,' I said.
'It's difficult, Nick.' The record changed to a live BB King cut. Someone in the bar had great taste in music, if a lousy taste in TV.
'It is about my bill, isn't it? Look, I'll give you a postdated —'
'Will you shut up about your bloody bill.'
'It's the first time I've ever heard you say that.'
He put one hand to his forehead and sighed and I knew something was up but couldn't for the life of me think what it could be. 'Is it Ginny?' I asked. Ginny being Charlie's wife of many years. 'The kids?'
'No. Yes. Sort of.' He sighed again.
'Or none of the above,' I said, trying to lighten his mood. 'What is it?'
'Nick. I reckon you're my best friend.' It's weird when people say that sort of thing. I've always thought of Charlie as a good mate. But not my best friend, if you know what I mean. I was flattered, but a little alarmed. I had a horrible feeling he was going to tell me he was dying of some sort of terrible disease. 'And I've got no one else to talk to,' he continued.
Christ. Here it comes I thought.
He took a big breath. 'See. I'm gay, Nick.'
It went right past me the first time. I thought I'd misheard. 'Do what?' I said.
'That's what I thought you said. It's a wind-up, right?'
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. 'Charlie,' I said, 'I've known you how long? Twenty years? More? I went to your wedding. I've seen your kids grow up. Now you're telling me you're gay. I don't believe it.'
'Why not, Nick? Can't you handle it?'
BB King faded out and 'Rocket 88' by Jackie Brenston thudded on. I had to try and get a copy of this tape. 'You're serious,' I said.
'I don't know what to say, Charlie. How long have you known?'
'Since I was about eight years old. But I've only admitted it to myself over the last year or so.'
'You're not having an affair?'
'You sound shocked, Nick. How many affairs did you have when you were married to Laura?'
'That was different.'
'Why? Because they weren't with men.'
There was no answer to that. 'Are you?' I asked again and lit another cigarette.
'So what's the problem?'
'Don't be fucking stupid, Nick. What do you think the problem is? I want to have an affair. That's the problem.'
'With anyone in particular?'
He shook his head. 'No. I'm not stupid, Nick. I know the risks. All the risks. Want another drink?'
'Sure,' I replied. 'Jack Daniel's and Coke. Large one. In fact, make it a triple.'
He got up and went to the bar, I listened to Jackie Brenston and then Otis Redding and Carla Thomas's version of 'Knock On Wood' after him.
When Charlie came back I said, 'Does Ginny know?'
'Christ no. Can you imagine?'
'I don't want to.'
'Nor do I.'
'So what are you going to do?'
'Get drunk with you.'
'Bloody good idea,' I said.CHAPTER 3
We did get drunk that night. Drunk like the old times when we didn't have a care in the world except where the next drink was coming from.
'What am I going to do?' Charlie asked me sometime through the fourth large Grouse he was drinking by then.
'What do you want to do?' I asked.
'Stop living a lie every day.'
'Jesus, Charlie,' I said. 'We all live lies some of the time. Some of us all of the time.'
He didn't answer that one.
After a few more drinks, which mostly we swallowed in silence, he seemed to cheer up a bit. Or maybe I was misreading the situation. I was matching him glass for glass, and I'd long ago lost count of how many we'd sunk.
'You know what, Nick,' he said after a bit.
'I can't tell you.'
'Jesus, but it's strange.'
'What? Come on, Charlie, spit it out.'
'I reckon I'd rather be a lesbian,' he said.
'What?' I said again through the alcohol fumes. 'You want a sex change now?'
We both laughed. 'No. Don't be fucking stupid. I just reckon of all the options it's the best one.'
'Easy,' he replied and ticked the answers off on his fingers.
'One. You get to eat pussy and get your pussy eaten. That must be like a blow job. What do you reckon?'
I admitted it had never crossed my mind.
'Right. Two. You get to play with tits. Now that can't be bad.'
'You're not sounding very gay to me so far, Charlie,' I ventured.
'I know. But don't forget I've been pretending to be straight for more than thirty years. Some of it must rub off. Right?'
I agreed he had a point.
'Then you can admit to liking dick, 'cos you're a woman. Right?'
'Where was I?' he asked, looking a little confused and calling to the bar for another round.
'That was three, I think,' I said.
'Right. Three. No, four. There's no shame in being penetrated. Right.'
I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable, but nodded agreement nevertheless.
'And you don't have to get into all the macho shit that men have to. You can just lie back in silk knickers and chill out.' The young woman who delivered our drinks gave us both an odd look which he didn't see.
'It's a point of view,' I said when she'd gone.
'But not one you really agree with.'
'I thought not.'
'You are what you are, Charlie,' I said.
'That's just the point.' He thumped the table. 'I'm not.'
'You'll always be my mate though,' I said.
'Will I? Look at you. You're as embarrassed as fuck.'
'It's just a shock, that's all.'
'Sure it is.'
'What am I going to do, Nick?' he asked. 'Come out and fuck up my family or carry on like I'm doing and feeling as miserable as sin all the time.'
'I can't help you with that one, Charlie,' I replied. 'I'm sorry.'
'Not half as sorry as I am. I could always kill myself, I suppose.'
'That's bollocks and you know it,' I said. 'Don't give me that crap or I'll lose my patience.'
'Always there with an understanding word, eh, Nick?' he said, and I could see the misery in his face but to my detriment I ignored it.
My lack of understanding would come back to haunt me.
And that's more or less where we left it. I couldn't help Charlie, but I could help the next person who came looking for me. Or at least I thought I could, and if it hadn't been for what Charlie had told me, and what happened later, maybe I never would have.CHAPTER 4
I'd just got back from Aberdeen and reopened the office when I met Ray Miller. I'd been visiting my daughter, Judith, who was living in Scotland with her solicitor's family until she decided what to do with her life. She was a rich girl now, or she would be in a couple of years' time when she reached her majority. Her deceased mother and stepfather had seen to that when they perished with her little half-brother on a freezing day just before the previous Christmas at O'Hare airport in Chicago. But right now she was getting ready to do her GCSEs. Then she'd decide if she wanted to do 'A' levels, or Highers as they call them up there, and maybe go on to university. Or maybe she wouldn't. Or decide if maybe she'd move back down to London with me, or maybe she wouldn't. She wasn't too sure. Not about that, and not about a lot of other things. And after what she'd been through I couldn't blame her. One thing was for sure. It was better that she stayed away from me for a while. I wasn't even certain that she loved me any more, not after what she'd had to do to save my life. Kill a man. Not that he was much of a man, and for sure he'd've killed me if she'd let him live. And then her afterwards. After he'd had his fun with her. Because he was that kind of man. But she'd lost something that day, and if it included her love for me, so be it. I knew that I loved her, loved her more than life itself. But like so many other women I'd known and loved, and who'd loved me back, she was better off without me. When I'd left we'd held each other tightly at the airport, but I didn't know when or, quite frankly, if I'd ever see her again.
I stroked her blonde hair in the quiet of the airport terminal as geezers in kilts and other geezers in big white Stetson hats passed by us. 'I'm going to miss you,' I said.
'I'm going to miss you too, Dad.' At least she hadn't started calling me Nick yet.
'Are you sure you're all right with the Condies?' That was the name of her solicitor's family.
Excerpted from Dead Flowers by Mark Timlin. Copyright © 1998 Mark Timlin. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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