We Were Swans

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The Hole

It wasn't difficult. Find a shitty little flat. Pay cash 6 months in advance to an Asian guy who was more interested in the money than me, less paperwork, no tax. Adopt jeans and hoodie and daily, around noon, mooch into town, order a beer, sit down with a laptop and ask about wifi. Everywhere has it now, even a dump like The Hole. Be quiet and if you make it regular, sooner or later people get curious. By letting little stuff out to the bar staff, it was soon general knowledge that I was a single guy, living locally who bought and sold cars on the internet. I was no fan of Revenue and Customs and enjoyed a beer. Within a fortnight, I’d done my first favour and with the kind of cash I had behind me, it made no difference if I made or lost on the car deal. I watched for a while and soon enough, clocked the guys with fast hands making their drops to their regular customers. Tentative enquiries got me my first gram of coke. Having made the connection, I’d buy more or less on a daily basis. I had to practice how to take it, referring to movies for the standard method. It took a bit of getting used to and I’d spend nights in the flat spaced out while still trying to think straight but over a week or so, felt confident enough to go public. If you buy it, you have to be seen using it. Occasionally, I’d even share it. Doing cocaine is like a ritual. The tension of making the deal, £40 slipped into a hand or tucked into a pocket, the bag in return. Huddling with a mate cutting the lines on a toilet cistern. Rolling the twenty. This is rock star territory. Trust isn’t really that hard to build when you’re breaking the rules in company. Over time, I became part of the furniture and, from time to time, even got high fived when out and about. I always had enough cash but not too much. No one cared how I made my money, just that I spent it. I’d talk about a few hundred here and there on this car or that and if a deal, fictional or not, was particularly beneficial, spread a little happiness around a growing clique. You just have to do all this kind of thing gently. Watch for tripwires, but gradually get involved in the occasional vodka frenzy and be one of the guys. In time, that’s what you are. Inside 6 months, I had two burn phones. One for the drugs, the bash phone in local speak, and one for day to day crap. They were never going to be registered, had nothing in them that even sniffed of Tom Hood, no photos, no names, nothing. Electronic trails can really fuck you up and I’d checked the best way to see it didn’t happen to me. Forget fancy encrypted gizmos. The most secure phone is one bought with cash, sim only and nothing personal in it knowing that you are quite happy to toss it in the trash. Think The Matrix. Never, never use it for the web. For the time being I was Tom Hamilton. I knew who was growing weed and where, even the variety, AK47, BC Bud, if they were organic or hydro. These guys loved to talk. After a while, I was helping out with regular watering and feeding and before I knew it, I had my own grow. Nothing big, just half a dozen plants, kinda establishing my credentials and getting me further in. The coke dealers were my mates, before long, I was hovering around their suppliers. It’s a natural thing. From the soft stuff, weed, pills, dealing coke is the next step up the ladder. I can’t say my head was clear all the time but I’d been at this for a while now and was, if you like, a changed man. I didn’t think too hard whether I cared about that or not, if there were time later, I’d think about it then. I never talked about my past. Initially, this made me suspect but as time went on, it gave me a subtle mystique and earned me a reputation as a man who could keep his mouth shut. Any ideas that I might be some undercover policeman were soon dropped. There was no way I could break the law on the scale I was and be a nark. I didn’t think too hard about the consequences of what I was doing. I had one objective and this seemed the best way to achieve it. Cynically, I reckoned that given who I was and how my life had changed I had little doubt that if caught, there was a good chance of a sympathetic judge. So, I kept going. I even had my own special buddy, Pete. Recently divorced, he was about 15 years younger than me and was partying his way through the rough end of 20 grand, which was his share of the house he and his ex had sold when their ways had parted. 5’10”, good looking, fit and solid, Pete hadn’t a care in the world and figured that he’d worry about the cash running out when the time came and not before, he even said as much. We hung together because we were both newbies, Pete landing in town about a fortnight before I had. He’d occasionally crash at my place, we’d share booze, coke and breakfast. Not girls though. Pete was the life and soul and the ladies liked him. I had a few years on the girls, Sacha on my mind and as I showed no interest, wasn’t pursued. Most of them were coke whores. But not in the way you might imagine that means. It didn’t seem to matter to them who or what they were in their everyday lives but when the sun went down and at weekends, the office clothes got discarded and they were on the town dressed to kill in their LBD’s and looking to party. It was common knowledge that The Hole was the party place. Particularly once the doors were locked after hours and the unknown punters sent on their way. The place built quickly, almost ritually into what can only be described as a Speakeasy. The ashtrays would come out of hiding and there was no need to find somewhere private to do your nose powder. Spirit measures were discarded in favour of the Continental freehand pour and the music cranked up. The Hole didn’t give a shit once the doors were locked and I have to say, every once in a while, it was fucking brilliant, usually lasting until the last man fell off his stool. It explained the blacked-out windows. There were drawbacks of course, mostly the psychos. That breed I tried to avoid. But avoiding them isn’t the same as having to put yourself in close proximity which was occasionally necessary. Apparently, they had their uses but they were mad, brooding fuckers that I didn’t know how to deal with. They were dangerous because they were low brow morons, unpredictable and stupid. Every town has at least one. But this place bred them. All human life and lowlife inhabited The Hole, surreal doesn’t come close. Clothes, hair, colour, creed, religion or politics, none of that mattered, a cosmopolitan paradise. Oddly though, some of the guys scattered amongst the dealers, growers, thieves and users were ok, likeable, charismatic even. They just were what they were. What they did was a lifestyle choice and a few of them had gone down for it but in the main, they were just looking out for themselves, not considering any harm that might come from it. You can judge me on this but I didn’t see how that made them any different to Politicians or Bankers. In it for themselves. Just like them. Just like me.

I was six months in and lately, I’d been asked to help out with a few small things. Unload a truck in the dead of night. Move some coke around. No major dramas but I was getting closer to the bad boys. Figures on the periphery now had names. Some of those names would acknowledge me around the bars. One Friday night, Pete and I strolled into The Hole and on seeing us, the barman gestured behind him with a thumb.

Behind the bar, a dimly lit corridor led to a glass wash area, storage rooms and at the far end a small, corner office. It was furnished with a filing cabinet, shelving carrying paperwork, small boxes and random defunct beer tap clips. On a battered desk stood a PC monitor, a grubby, well used keyboard, unfiled receipts, a calculator and a biscuit tin, one of those big, square ones you see around at Christmas. Behind the desk, in a Captain’s chair, sat the owner of The Hole in The Wall, Kyle Goodman, known as Benny, I figured because of a fondness for Benzedrine, there being no Jazz on the jukebox. He finished a line of coke with a flourish and looked up. Local boy done good by being bad. I’d heard rumours of armed robberies being bandied about. Skinny, sallow skinned, dark thin hair pulled back in a ponytail and sporting the mandatory goatee, his favoured clothing, unrelieved black. Biker boots, jeans, t-shirt topped off with a plain, black leather waistcoat. Me and Benny had been getting along fine these past months. His were the trucks I unloaded, the drugs I moved, the guy I did favours for. We’d had deep, meaningful chats. Along with Pete and a few others, I was one of his boys. On his right, loomed Joey. A massive knuckle dragger who Benny rarely went anywhere without. Apparently too big to be of much use in a fight but I’d been told he was handy with a knife and had no qualms about using it. I stood next to Pete. Goodman gestured at a couple of ranks of coke lined up on the table top.

“Help yourselves, guys.”

It would have been rude not to so Pete and I stooped and took it through a couple of rolled up twenties.

There was the usual second or two of snuffling and nostril checking and Goodman let this subside before speaking again, staccato.

“Fuckers’ve had me over. I can’t have it. And blatant with it.” He kept his voice low, there was a bar full of rockers not a million miles away. Me and Pete knew better than to interrupt. Goodman liked an audience.

“I want it back, 2 kilos straight out of Escobar’s back pocket.” This meant it was uncut. Or at least, as uncut as it was likely to be by the time it got to Goodman.

Let me give you some figures here. On the street, a gram goes for £40. There are 28 grams in an ounce, give or take, and 35 ounces in a kilogram. Don’t blame me for how this bastardised system became common, it comes down to manufacturers supplying in metric and the U.S. dealers using pounds and ounces. So weirdly, a kilo is 1,120 grams, give or take. You turn that into money by multiplying by £40. Roughly 45 grand. But that’s before you bash it. You can cut the stuff with Benzocaine or Phenacetin. Both look the same and give the same numbing effect. A great marketing idea but both traceable and hard to come by unless you buy the cheap stuff, £12 a kilo but mixed in a Chinese bathtub and therefore dodgy in the extreme. Glucose or Powder Protein is another option, looks the part but with no numbing characteristics. But whatever agent the basher chooses or can find, once cut, depending on which pusher it’s destined for, he’ll measure it out into their preferred weight. This he then shoves into a pneumatic press turning it into a glistening hard block of ‘pure’ coke. Anything but. So, do the math. Goodman had 2 kilos of ‘pure’. If he was lucky, very lucky, this might be up to 70% coke. He’ll turn that into 8 kilos. To him, that’s £360 grand. Incidentally, by the time that gets to you, your friendly neighbourhood dealer and the guy above him would have cut it again, I don’t know what with but it ’aint gonna be wholesome. If you get 3% coke in your little baggy, you’ll be doing well.

“Nearly half a million quid.” He growled. “I want it back.”

An exaggeration, I knew, but that was Goodman. The numbers mattered to him. It was how he measured himself. I let Pete do our talking. I’m the quiet guy, remember? Pete spoke.

“Who’s got it?”

Goodman cut 3 more lines. Took one and invited us in. We rolled our twenties, bent and snorted.

“Those Peabody fuckers I reckon.”

Peabody’s. My second choice of bar when making my selection. Sartorially more elegant than The Hole but, until now at least, more dope dealers than coke. They were at the other end of town. We had the bikes, they had the jazzed up hot hatches. There was rarely any contact between the ends of the spectrum.

“How?” Pete again.

“Last night, on the Motorway services. Same way we always get it. Fast Johnny was doing the pick-up. He’d checked it, paid up and the supplier had gone. That made it mine. Fuckers beat the shit out of him, nicked the coke and were on their toes.”

“And we think it’s Peabody’s because?”

“Johnny had clocked one of their cars parked up on his way in. Didn’t think much of it ’cos you see ’em around all the time. When he woke up it was gone. And so was my coke.”

I spoke for the first time. “A bit thin, isn’t it?”

“It’s enough.” Goodman growled. “They’ve been close to treading on my toes for a while. Figured they’d upgrade. It’s time they were reminded who runs this zoo. So, right now I really don’t care if it was them or not, I ‘aint happy and someone’s gonna pay. We’ll start with them. See what happens when we shake the tree. I want that fuckin’ coke back.’’

He reached for the biscuit tin and levered off the lid. I heard rustling and his hand emerged with a robust, plastic shopping bag, he put it on the desk. It clunked heavily.

“You ’aint the only ones on this but I don’t wanna go out mob handed. You’ll work in pairs. ’Til now, the Police don’t really give a shit about us or them, as long as we aint outrageous.”

Benny looked straight at me. “You were Army?” That had been one of our deep, meaningful conversations.

I nodded. “Reserve but spent some time in the shit.”

“Then you’ll know how to use one of these.”

He pushed the bag at us. “Take ’em and you’re in... all the way in. There’s a finder’s fee. Don’t take ’em and you can fuck off and not come back.” He waited looking straight at us.

“Do they work?” I asked.

“They did the last time they had a day out. They’re clean and loaded. Full mags. Don’t be stupid. Don’t get caught. Get my coke.”

Pete opened the bag and took out two semi-automatic pistols. I couldn’t tell what brand but at first glance, they looked in good order. I’d heard rumours of armed robberies. Perhaps they weren’t just rumours after all. Pete handed me mine and I tucked it into the waistband of my jeans, in the small of my back, hiding it with the hem of my hoodie. I had my gun. Time to get the fuck out of Dodge.

Leaving The Hole in The Wall, I told Pete I needed to get back to the flat for some spare clothes. This made sense, if we got bloody, we’d need clean gear to change into. We agreed to meet back here in an hour. That was all the time I needed. I drove straight to the flat. All I needed, was my laptop. Everything else was Tom Hamilton’s crap. Not mine. There were half a dozen, well, five now, guys out there with guns looking to do some damage. If this kicked off as badly as I thought it might, local motorists were going to catch a break. The law were going to be all over this and if a name came up, it wouldn’t be Tom Hood. They’d need forensics to track me down and hopefully, I’d either kept under the police radar or wouldn’t matter enough to be hunted. Benny didn’t have forensics. I left the flat without a backward glance. All that had needed to be done here, was done.

I walked a very twitchy mile or so in the dark to a small lock up on the edge of town. It was here I kept my clean car. A big, fat, silver Mercedes. A businessman’s car, nondescript but a debadged AMG powerful enough to get me out of trouble if I needed to throw my weight around. It was time to go home. I pulled slowly out of the lock up, lights off. Leaving the car running, I got out and pulled down the shutter. A quick eyeball showed no activity or interest nearby. I slid quietly back into the Merc. I had an hour’s drive ahead of me, most of it on dual carriageways or motorways. Easy access and egress had been a priority on my search for a town with a gun in it, country roads, picturesque as they are, can be a bitch. The motorway was fairly quiet, with just a hint of roadworks and with the dark outline of trees framing a pewter night sky, the Merc thrummed along with me in its cocoon. With luck, I’d be home about 2am. I was conscious that being stopped for anything would be disastrous with what I was carrying. Looking, and very probably smelling, the way I did wasn’t typical of the average Merc owner. I’d be looked at hard if I got pulled over. I needed to get back into Tom Hood’s skin. That said, against my instincts, I kept my speed at just above the limit. Thirsty for coffee, I resisted the impulse to stop and in time, my junction came up and I slipped smoothly onto the exit ramp. Roadside lamps, roundabouts and speed cameras slowly gave way to school signs and habitation, signs of life eased as I neared home, then petered out completely. A couple of minutes down a hedgerowed lane and I was at my gate. The car told it I was home and it swung open automatically. Passing through I watched in my rear-view mirror as it closed shut. Gravel crunched beneath the Mercs tyres until ahead, my headlights illuminated the main house. More sensors spotted me and raised the garage door. Once inside, it closed behind me and the interior lights came on. Switching off the car, I sat there, listening. The hot engine ticked occasionally but that was it. The place was utterly silent. I had good reason to hang fire for a minute or two. I was no gardener, and the house had ample lawns and decorative gardens in the grounds. An old boy, Sid, took care of all that twice a week and I needed to be sure he’d kept to his brief and that the house was nice and empty. I gave it a couple of minutes but the silence was constant. No unwelcome guests. I realised I was sweating. Time to get out of character. Deactivating the security system, I opened the interconnecting door to the house, closed it behind me then leaned against it, still sweating, kinda catching my breath. I took the pistol from my waistband and shoved it in a drawer. I’d have a proper look at my trophy tomorrow. There was no milk so I had to take my coffee black. Catching my reflection in the mirror reminded me too much of Hamilton. I stripped, threw Hamilton’s clothes in the bin, took a hot shower and had the luxury of my first clean shave in months. I’d get my hair cut tomorrow, somewhere out of town.So here I was, in front of the mirror again, my hands propping me up on the dresser. It had been months since I’d seen my face, my real face. I looked tired… tired but satisfied. Since the decision to go after The Twins, this was the first chance I’d had to take stock. It was hard to believe that Phase One wasn’t just complete, it had been successful. I was never really sure of my ability or logic. But facts were facts. I’d figured out where guns were likely to be around, done my research, gone in and got one. Time had never really been a problem, finding the balls was. I’d proved to myself that I could do whatever it took. I was gradually eroding the self-doubt, lack of confidence, call it what you will but I was coping. Not bad for an ageing desk jockey. More to the point, I’d done it anonymously. Now it was over, I started to actually think about what I’d done as Hamilton. For almost a year, it had been an alien existence, one I’d thought I was ill prepared for and yet, I’d got away with it. I hoped that in shedding him, what he’d been and the things he had done, I’d be able to be human once again. My fear now, was that his might not be an easy skin to slough off. For this to work Tom Hood had needed to change but there was much of me I’d liked. Now, I wasn’t so sure. I grunted at my reflection. Ignored my reservations and went to bed. I slept like a baby.

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