by Peter Francis-Mullins
I turn into Martin’s drive. Wheels crunching on gravel. That always feels classy, and it’s a classy place, but then, I found it for him. Sixteenth century manor house with the timbers, natural like they should be, not stained. His security lights come on but the house is dark. I know he’s in; his car’s out front. He never puts it away when he’s back late, and late it is. That’s not my fault.
Crunch crunch. My feet on the gravel. It’s quiet out here. Just the motorway buzzing in the distance. You can see the stars when the sky’s clear. His door’s solid oak, not original, but totally in character.
No sign of him coming when I ring the bell nicely, so I lean on it. A proper electric bell, classy again. There’s a spyhole and now it’s glowing; he’s turned on a light. It goes dark again while he looks, and I hear his voice.
“What do you want?”
I put my face right in front of the lens. “Are you letting me in, or do I start ringing again?”
I don’t hear him cuss, but I know he has.
The door opens and I doff my hat at him. It’s a Fedora. I got it on holiday. “Hello Uncle. I’ve been calling you all evening,” I tell him.
He’s pouring whisky out of a decanter. “I was busy. I had my phone off.” He looks round at me. “You’re sure you don’t want one?”
“I’m driving, aren’t I.”
“Cup of tea?” he says.
“A glass of water’d be nice.”
He goes to the kitchen. I call after him. “Bottled if you’ve got it. Or filter. I’m not fussy.”
I’m looking at his paintings like I do when I’m here. Martin’s a dealer. This is his gallery as well as his home, so they’re different every time, and even I can see they’re quality. There’s also a glass-fronted cabinet. Security glass and locked like the law says, because that’s where he keeps his shotguns - fancy, sporting pieces to impress the clients, not sawn-off like in the old days. Does he keep a hacksaw handy, like if he fancies a stroll down memory lane? I don’t think so.
Martin comes back with my water. We sit down, leather armchairs of course, him opposite, looking a bit like Grandma did, with his skinny old legs crossed in his dressing gown, nothing on his feet.
“So, you’ve come all this way to get me out of bed. Or did you just happen to be passing?”
Uncle Martin. Cranky old bastard these days, but like a father to me when we lost Dad. The both of us, Martin and me, all that’s left of a line of villainy going way back. And then we each of us packed it in.
Cheryl did it for me. Or rather, it was meeting her dad. He was a sergeant with Leytonstone police and well acquainted with my family, so when Cheryl and I got serious, you could say he wasn’t happy, and that wouldn’t even scratch it. But he knew his daughter. Knew she’d do what she pleased, so he set it to me straight. Clean my act up. Walk the line. One wrong move and he’d put me in jail, if he had to fit me up to do it.
I wasn’t sorry as it happened. I always was the family oddball. Like I passed exams when half the kids our way hardly knew where the school was. Not that I did anything with my four B’s and a C. The careers adviser was a laugh. “Banking,” she told me. “You’ve got Economics, Business Studies. Great prospects for you, it’s perfect.”
“Yes,” I said. “Till my dad comes visiting.”
She didn’t understand so I explained. It wasn’t a long interview.
I never was going Dad’s way. Wouldn’t have had the balls, but as much as that, packing a gun and terrifying some kid of a teller just doing their job is not how I’d want to make a living.
Not that Dad ever actually shot anyone, except maybe the slimeball who killed Gramps, his old man. Dad never said what he and Martin did, but any time we drove up to see Grandma out Epping way, there was a point in the forest where he’d blow a kiss into the trees and cross himself. Dust you are and to dust you shall return. Just in that case, not on consecrated ground.
Scams were my thing, soon as I was old enough to carry it off. I was good. Rich and greedy, I was looking for. Toe rags who had it coming, and there’s no shortage in the clubs and casinos. Scent your prey and get them talking. Keep them drinking, but stay sober yourself. Soon they’d be signing away their hard-unearned money, and I was never caught. Mostly they’d take the hit and keep schtum. Too damaging to admit they’d been shafted.
I made a pile in a couple of busy years, and so when Cheryl’s dad had his little word, I had options. Specifically in property, real estate, where I reckoned I could use my bullshitting skills like an honest man. And life has been good.
As for Martin, come the nineties, him and Dad were both of them out of time. Not enough cash worth the effort in banks any more, never mind cameras all over, and police getting their act together. Dad copped it when an armed unit was waiting for him and he was daft enough to point his gun their way. Mum never got over that, God rest her. Yes, she’s gone too. Cancer.
Martin had his moment of truth when he and a few others rammed a security van in Croydon. One of them, not Martin, lost his mask and shot a guard who’d clocked his face. Point blank. Near took the guard’s head off, Martin said. They got away clean before the law arrived, except that for the idiot who’d done the guard. Hadn’t reckoned he’d be on camera. HiDef, even then. Every pimple on his gorgeous face all over the papers and the news. He was lucky. He had mates in trafficking who could disappear him quick, though at a price, I’m sure. No one ever knew where he went.
What with Dad getting it and then his own fiasco, Martin could see how the game was moving. And he wasn’t the only one. All the faces were moving on now to drugs, sex-trade, all of that, but Martin has principles. Also, I’ll give you, it was the Russian gangs and the rest coming in with no traditions here, no respect.
Like it or not, the strait and narrow was calling him, not that anyone could have seen art being his way. A secret passion for years, it turned out, and it does suit him. His gallery chums. This house. Shooting parties with the country set. Pity it’s all got to end.
My mouth’s dry. I sip some water.
“Well?” says Martin.
“Cheryl’s dad came round,” I tell him. “He wanted a word, just him and me.” More water. “About you. He told me to stop seeing you.”
“That’s how he put it. ‘You have to,’ he said, with that look of his. You wouldn’t know.”
Martin’s frowning. “And this was, why?”
“He didn’t say. Just gave me the order and then he was off. Hadn’t touched his tea even.”
“You might have asked him.”
“I wouldn’t dare. He’s got to have heard something, but it wouldn’t be for my ears.”
Martin’s knocked back the whisky. Now he’s after the decanter again. “I thought he’d retired.”
“He still hangs out. There’s a pub, by the station.”
“When was this?”
“When he came?” I say. “Day before yesterday.”
“And you’re only telling me now?”
“I’ve got to be careful. You know why.”
“Yeah.” Martin means that. He understands.
He’s back in his chair. Thinks a while. “It’s nothing,” he says at last. “Cold case review. They pull out a file no one’s looked at in years and see who they can pin it on. Ideally some old face like me they’re gagging to put away. It won’t happen.”
“Martin,” I say, “why am I here now? Taking the risk? I’m not done yet.”
Denial stopped in its tracks, and he’s not stupid. Had to have seen there was more coming.
“I’ve been asking around,” I tell him. “Old names I’ve not seen in ages. You remember Pete Foster? Mate of Jerry Bulman?”
That gets a reaction. It’s Jerry who shot the guard in Croydon. I go on.
“I saw Pete today, not actually expecting anything, but I could tell. I mean talking to him, he wasn’t exactly happy to see me, so I turned a screw. Stuff I knew from way back, things he wouldn’t want Mrs. Foster to hear.”
My throat’s catching, I swig the water again.
“Jerry’s back,” I tell Martin. “He flew in this afternoon, air ambulance, police waiting on the tarmac. It was all set up. He’s dying, and he wants to do it in his old bed with family round. So he’s got himself a deal.”
Martin’s looking into his glass which is empty again, but he’s not getting up. When he does lift his eyes, maybe it’s the whisky, but they’re older even than they were just now.
“Pete knows this, how?”
“They’ve been in touch all along.”
Eyes back in his glass again. “Jerry’s a killer. He won’t get any deal.”
“Martin, it’s pancreatic cancer. He’s got weeks to go, if that. All he wants is bail, and all he’s going to do with it is die. That’s no skin off anyone’s nose. Pete says it’s on rails. Court in the morning. Soon as bail’s fixed, he’ll finger the lot of you for Croydon.”
It’s not good, seeing how this takes him. Off his chair in a flash, out to the hall then he’s back with his laptop and firing it up. “There’s got to be a flight. First I can get on, anywhere.”
“It’s too late.”
“Not if I’m quick,” he says. “And if I keep on moving...”
“Martin, how did Cheryl’s dad know to warn me off? I mean from talking to you, specifically?”
That’s got his attention.
“You’ve got to be marked already,” I say. “A taster from Jerry I reckon, to show he’s serious. They’re letting you alone till they’ve got the whole deal, but you won’t be getting on any plane.”
Silence. He closes the laptop.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I should have told you straight off, when I knew something was up.”
His eyes are on one of his paintings. “How long has it been?”
“I was at school,” I say, knowing what he means. “What was it you got?”
“You always said it wasn’t too bad.”
“That was bollocks. And I was young then. Young and hard, or at least I could act it.”
Still he’s looking at the painting. This whole life, his last twenty-odd years crumbling in a trice, and he’s got to be thinking, at his age, going down for this, he won’t be coming out except in a box.
His voice is miles away. “You’d better get home.”
“I’ll stay a bit.”
“No,” he says. “They could be watching me now.”
“I drove around before I stopped here. There’s nothing.”
“Not that you’d see.” Suddenly he’s looking at me. “I mean it, Colin. If you got pulled into this, I couldn’t handle it.”
“I know.” Really soft, he says that, and for a moment he looks like he wants to tell me something. But the face changes, and all he says is: “Just go. Please.”
I put my hat on. He doesn’t see me to the door.
I’m parked in a lane up the side of Martin’s place with a window open. Almost an hour since I left him and hardly a sound anywhere. Even the motorway’s tailed off this late.
I can see all his lights are on. What’s he been doing? Polishing off the whisky? Taking a last mosey round the house, his paintings? Getting the key for those guns?
I just heard it. The shot I’ve been waiting for. Just the one. Is he in that same chair, his brains all over the pictures behind?
It was bullshit, all I told him. Cheryl’s dad never came round. Has anyone ever heard from Jerry Bulman? Don’t ask me. He might have been dead years for all I know. What I did get was a call from an old mate of Martin’s I’d never heard of. Jack Finch, he called himself, I don’t know how he found me. Jack is actually dying and had something to get off his chest. Why he’s not seen Martin in years and wouldn’t want to. Because Martin good as killed my dad.
The night before it happened, Dad getting shot, he and Martin had a ruck, a nasty one like only family are going to have. Martin was drunk. Took a swing at Dad, who would have been sober, with a job on next day. And Dad could handle himself. By the time he was finished, Martin needed a trip to hospital, and while he was there, still out of it and crazy, he called the law and grassed Dad up. Come the morning and sober, Martin remembered what he’d done and tried to stop Dad. But he’d left already and never would take a phone on a job. Martin tried to head him off, but he was too late. Police all round the bank. He had to hear on the news what had gone down.
How did Finch know all this? Years after, he and another mate got wasted with Martin on what turned out to be the anniversary of it all, and Martin got emotional. Spilled it out. I couldn’t believe it. Didn’t want to believe Finch, but he said, go see the other one who’d heard Martin’s little confession. Name of Ben Whitman, doing life now in Belmarsh. So, I went visiting. Ben’s another old geezer, hoping they’ll let him out soon if he behaves, so he wasn’t happy getting into this, but in the end, he had to tell me it was true. They cut Martin dead, him and Finch, though they agreed, not a word to anyone else. Out of respect for my family, Ben said. Now there was only me. And Martin.
I don’t hate him. Might say I love him even, how he looked out for me afterwards and saw that Mum never wanted, all that time having to think what he’d done. But right’s right. I’d have finished it myself if I’d had to, but I’m a con artist, not a killer. Seems I still have the touch. I blow a kiss his way and cross myself.