“Well, well.” One of the two skinny ones stared me out. “You were down our boozer flashin’ a load of cash, weren’t yer?”
I thought of my ever-full wallet. If money was all they wanted they could have it. I reached into my back pocket and all three tensed. That’s when I noticed one of the skinny guys had a heavy-duty chain in his hands, the kind used to secure a motorbike. He swung it in front of him and it clanked off the ground a few feet from my boots.
I jumped back a step. “I’ve got money.” I held up my left hand and grabbed at my wallet with my right. It wouldn’t move. It was stuck. I used both hands and tugged to no avail. What was happening? How could it be jammed in my pocket?
I broke out in a sweat.
“My wallet seems to be…um…stuck.” I gulped. Was this Mr. Scarlet’s idea of a joke?
All three exchanged glances and sneers. I looked from one to the other. The Missing Link had looked pretty big sitting down; now he towered over me with hands the size of coal scuttles.
“You havin‘ a laugh?” He rumbled in a voice that made my fillings shake. The third skinny guy snickered. I heard a click, saw a flash of steel and realised he had a flick knife.
Bloody hell. A giant thug and two twiglets with a chain and a knife.
How could I get out of this one?
I feigned a step to the left and The Missing Link lumbered closer, blocking my escape. Dumb and Dumber closed in and the chain swung back and forward like a pendulum. I stepped back and I was up against the brick wall. The flick knife swooped close in a wide arc, I jerked my head away and cracked the side of my skull on the bricks behind me.
For a moment I saw flashing lights and stars and heard birds singing. And then my vision cleared and I took my chance. I lunged forward, grabbed the chain and pulled it’s skinny owner into the path of The Missing Link.
“Hoi!” He lost his balance, they both stumbled and I darted to my right just as the third one stuck out his foot and sent me flying onto my knees.
I gasped in shock as the knife slashed right by my neck and dozens of love beads sprang free and scattered around me. I tried to roll away but huge hands grabbed the back of my shirt and hauled me upright. The knife was pressed to my face as they all crowded round and I could smell whisky on their breath.
“Alright, pretty boy.” The one with the chain sneered at me. “We’ve had about enough of you.” His eyes were bright and his face flushed. He looked quickly over his shoulder at the dark alley and deserted street at the end of it. Then he turned to the one holding the knife. “Do ’im, Gerry. Do ’im!”
At this point most people’s lives would flash in front of them, but since mine had been erased by The Committee all that flashed in front of me was the knife and a sneaking suspicion that my life probably hadn‘t been that great, anyway.
And now it was about to end for the third time in an alley with three morons who needed breath mints.
I steeled myself and waited for the knife to pierce my skin. And then I heard a yelp of pain from The Missing Link. I felt his grip loosen and saw a flash of brown fur as Weedgie launched himself past my face. He bit heavily into the wrist of the startled knife-wielder and dragged him away from me.
“Run, Marty!” he yelled, dropping down and dodging round the other two. He jumped over the chain which was now swinging in his direction. I hesitated for a moment, then twisted out of The Missing Link’s grasp and took off down the alley like an Olympic sprinter. I skidded round the corner and raced back the way we’d come, towards houses, pubs and people. Two streets further on, Weedgie streaked past me shouting over his shoulder as he went;
“Ye run like a Big Jessie!”
I caught up with him five minutes later at the corner of a busy road outside a cinema. Queues of people jostled for pavement space with pedestrians and groups of teenagers spilled out of a café. The jukebox inside gave a brief glimpse of their taste in music. Bob Dylan; The Times They Are A Changing.
You could say that again, Bob. My times were definitely changing and I still wasn’t sure it was for the better.
We stopped in front of a launderette and got our breath back. I looked at Weedgie, a strange mixture of feelings welling up inside me. The sensation of losing control got stronger by the minute.
“Thank you,” I managed to say before tears threatened to appear.
“Ach, nae bother. Don’t mention it.” Weedgie sat down beside me and watched people going by.
I gulped down air a few times, tried to steady myself. I wondered how I would have reacted if the situation had been in reverse. Would I have stepped in and risked my life to save Weedgie?
I couldn’t answer that question.
And that bothered me more than I would have liked.
“Why did you do it?” I said, conscious that my voice was shaking, “You could have been killed. That moron could have stabbed you.”
Weedgie turned and stared at me and held my gaze.
“Ye’re a numpty.” His eyes misted over and he turned away. “But ye’re ma numpty. Ye’re ma owner and ye’re all ah’ve got.”
There was a silence that seemed to stretch for ever and then something horrible happened; tears streamed down my face and sobs caught in my throat and made me gasp. Somewhere in my mind I berated myself for being so soft and girly. I asked where my serial-killer cool had gone, and then I cried openly on a London street until one feeling grew in strength and fought it‘s way to the surface. I couldn‘t ignore it.
Stonking, great, in-your-face guilt.
And that’s when something even worse happened, as horror and shame welled up to join the guilt.
“I tried to get you killed under a bus!” I blurted out.
“Whit?“ Weedgie looked back up at me and his expression changed. He frowned, looked at me like he was just about to suggest I was joking and then he froze.
“Friday…” he said slowly, “A’ they busy streets…”
He swallowed, blinked away sudden tears and then leapt up and barged past me.
“Weedgie!” I made to follow him and he dashed straight out into the road. There was a screech of brakes and a car swerved to miss him. I held my breath, heart in mouth, and hoped against hope that he was alright.
When I saw a blur of scruffy brown fur racing along the opposite street, the relief was indescribable.
And then I sprang into action and took off after him, weaving around cars and taxis and straining to see where he’d gone. Two minutes later, I realised I’d lost him.
“Weedgie, Weedgie, where are you…” I said, ignoring the strange looks I was receiving from passers-by. I paced along the next street and the next with no sign of him and then I crossed back again and paced the opposite streets, criss-crossing as I went, looking into doorways and pubs, checking alleys and side streets.
Weedgie had vanished.
And it was all my fault.
I wandered seemingly endless streets for the next few hours, cold and miserable, desperate for a glimpse of him but growing sadly convinced that I never would see him again.
Two days ago that thought would have had me jumping for joy.
“Come on, Mr. Scarlet!” I stopped and shouted into the night air. “Is this your idea of an ironic ending? Is this supposed to be funny?”
Two women in heavy coats and rain-mates passed quickly by, one muttering to the other about letting those lunatics out the asylum. I hung my head, trudged on around a corner and saw the blue van up ahead.
My spirits rose and I ran towards it, fumbling for my keys. I opened the back doors and saw…our luggage.
The sight of Weedgie’s bag of food and the football brought fresh tears and I slumped onto the floor of the van and sat there for a while. Then I dragged myself to my feet, shut the doors and walked on to the next street, wondering if he had found his way back to Sadie’s.
I stopped short at the sight of a police car parked at the kerb, then turned and headed wearily back to the van. I climbed in the back, curled up and fell into an exhausted sleep.
A passing milk float woke me up at some ridiculous hour and I lay for a while, my limbs stiff and my head full of pictures of Weedgie, cold and alone, sleeping rough somewhere or shut in some building where no-one could hear him. I tortured myself with these thoughts until I couldn’t stand it any longer and then I climbed out of the van and walked to the next street.
The police car was gone. This looked hopeful. I went quickly along to Sadie’s, and then ran up the steps and let myself in.
“Hello?” My voice rang out in the empty hall. All the doors were open, including the one to Sadie’s part of the house. I went in to her living room and navigated the oceans of velvet and tassels until I reached Mary‘s bedroom. Her belongings were still there.
I went back out and then opened the next door to a larger bedroom. It held a four-poster bed draped in a lilac velvet bedcover, with matching tasselled curtains at each corner. It felt like the velvet and tassels had galloped from the living-room into here and then bred. Next door was a small bathroom with pink towels and a pink pompom poodle covering the spare toilet-roll. You could say Sadie had class…but you‘d be lying.
I retreated back to the other half of the house and wandered sadly through it, wondering what would happen to it now and marvelling at how much change could occur in so short a period of time.
I had a last wash in the bathroom and then forced myself to take a final look at the room Weedgie and I had shared. There was nothing left to show that either of us had been there except for one of Weedgie’s crunchy bones which had found its way under the settee. I backed out of the room, telling myself I wouldn’t cry.
“For God’s sake - you’re a grown man!” I told myself as I thundered down the stairs, crossed the hall and charged straight into Don as he came through the front door.
“Marty!” He looked a lot happier than when I’d seen him last. “Hey, where did you get to?”
“Long story,” I said, “How’s Mary?”
His face broke into a huge smile.
“She’s going to be fine,” he said, “Luckily she only had small doses of the poison and not too regularly so they can get it out of her system. The police think the buns Pat took into work by mistake had a much higher dose through them. Sadie was stepping up her campaign this last week, by the look of things.”
“We got here just in time then,” I said and then, seeing Don’s confused look, continued quickly, “What about Sadie?”
“She’s gone,” he said, “Took her passport and ran, so she could be anywhere. I’m here to get Mary’s things and then I’m getting a locksmith to change the locks.”
He looked down and around us and then back at me.
“Where’s Weedgie?” he said and I made a face.
“He ran away. I can’t find him.”
“Ohno, that’s awful. He’s such a likeable little chap. I’ll certainly keep a lookout for him and if he comes back here I’ll hold onto him for you.”
“Thanks, Don.” I made for the door. “If I don’t find him I’ll check back here. Hope everything works out for you and Mary. Bye.”
“Bye, Marty, hope you find Weedgie.”
I hoped so too. I left Sadie’s and wandered back to the van. I climbed in behind the wheel and thought for a moment. Where might Weedgie go? Then I thought of the park where we’d eaten chips. It was somewhere to try, if nothing else.
I drove off and arrived at the park gates a few minutes later. There was no sign of Weedgie. I went into the park and sat on the same bench where we’d dined and discussed tactics for saving Mary. That seemed a long time ago now.
“Do you have B.O.?”
The voice startled me and I jumped, then turned and saw Mr. Scarlet standing a few feet away.
“I just wondered, since you seem to be all alone,” he continued smoothly, “Where is your furry fiend - I mean, friend?”
I stood up and faced him, anger rising and the old violent feelings resurfacing.
“I don’t know where Weedgie is,” I said through gritted teeth, “But you probably do. Do you enjoy torturing me?”
He raised both eyebrows, then shook his head and tutted at me. “The only person torturing you is yourself, Marty. I have no idea where your dog is. He is your responsibility, not mine.”
I looked away. “I’m hoping he’ll come here,” I said, “I need to apologise to him.”
“Well, you’ve run out of time, I’m afraid.” Mr. Scarlet looked at his big silver watch. “Next victim is waiting.”
“Well, they’ll just have to wait,” I said, “I’m not going without Weedgie.”
“Aw, now, isn’t that sweet.” His tone dripped so much sarcasm he needed a towel. “Marty loves his little doggie-woggie.”
“Don’t let Weedgie hear you calling him that,” I said, “He’ll do a Jimmy Riddle up your leg or bite your bahookie!”
“Are you on some kind of medication?” he said, looking slightly alarmed, “Because you appear to be talking gibberish. I’m here to tell you that your next journey begins in five minutes and you have a choice.”
“What?” I was suspicious. “What’s the choice?”
“Since you appear to have mislaid your partner then you can go on ahead, by yourself - ”
“I told you, I’m not going without Weedgie!”
“It’s rude to interrupt, Marty. The second choice is for Weedgie to go on by himself. And since he is absent then it looks like you will have to choose the first option. You go on alone.”
“And what happens to Weedgie if I do? Does he stay on here in 1968? Will you find him a good home? Can I come back and get him?”
“So many questions…just one answer. No. To all of them. If you go on then Weedgie is vaporised into black nothingness for eternity.”
“Wha…?” I could barely speak. “But…but that’s…and what happens to me if Weedgie goes on alone?”
“The same. Black nothingness.” He studied his black nails for a moment then looked back at me. “I told you that you and Weedgie were a team. You broke up that team, Marty. So…what would you like to do?”
“Something painful to you,” I said, “This isn’t fair!”
“Deal with it. Time is ticking on.”
I hung my head, considered my options.
There was only one choice to make.
And I made it.
“Let Weedgie go on and have another chance. I choose…the black nothingness.”
His face lit up. I wanted to punch him. And what harm could it do me now? I stepped forward.
“You know what you are, don’t you?” I said, “You’re a…” And suddenly every insult, every curse, every horrible word I’d ever heard deserted me until I was left with just one. The only one which fitted the bill. The only one I wanted to use.
“You’re a bampot!”
Then my anger and energy evaporated as suddenly as if someone had flicked a switch. I stood defeated and looked at him as his smile widened.
“So, let me get this straight.” He ticked off on his fingers. “One; you want to forfeit your right to go on and you accept eternity in black nothingness. Two; you want to give your chance to Weedgie and let him live. And Three; I’m a…bam pot.”
“Too frinkin’ right ye are!” Weedgie appeared behind me and trotted past Mr. Scarlet. “C’moan, Marty, move yer bahookie’!”
“Weedgie! What - ” A wave of joy coursed through me and almost lifted me off my feet. I dived after him and we reached the van together. I opened the door, he jumped in and I followed. We looked at each other.
“I am so sorry,” I said, “That was the old me who wanted rid of you. The new me wants you here.”
“Ah ken,” he said, “Ah heard whit ye said tae that red flinker. He found me last night and brought me back here this mornin‘. Tellt me to go fur a walk roon the park and ah’d get a surprise.”
“He what?” I stared. “He told you to go for a walk round the park…! He set me up. He knew how I would react.”
“I can read you like a book, Marty.” Mr. Scarlet appeared on the pavement beside the open driver’s door. “Unfortunately, you’re the sort of book that’s discontinued from a library, goes to a charity shop, is reduced and fails to sell and ends up in a fifty pence sin bin before being recycled as toilet paper. Now get a move on.”
He slammed the door and Weedgie and I looked at each other and then out through the windscreen. The London street in front of us suddenly disappeared and was replaced by swirling blackness.
I had a sudden horrible thought, and wound down my window. Mr. Scarlet was still standing on the pavement next to the park. He tapped his watch.
“That stuff out there.” I pointed to the swirling blackness. “How do we know that’s not black nothingness?”
“Here, that’s a point!” Weedgie dived onto my lap and stuck his head out the window. Mr. Scarlet sighed.
“That is swirling blackness. Black nothingness is a completely different thing.” He rolled his eyes and disappeared.
Weedgie moved off my lap and shuffled along the seat. I wound the window back up, we looked at each other and I took a deep breath.
“Ok, here goes…” I started the engine, put the van into first gear and blinked nervously as the swirling blackness began to make me feel dizzy.
I let the clutch out…and stalled the engine.
“Damn…” I sighed, and then winced as Weedgie leaned towards me, rested his head on my shoulder and gazed up into my eyes.
“Numpty,” he said.