If I’d seen Tyrone before he saw me I’d have cut down a side street, turned and fled, barged into a store selling women’s lingerie or slipped into a sex shop; anything to avoid passing close enough for him to recognise me. But I don’t see him. He sees me and having seen me he walks straight over.
It’s late afternoon and I’m in the concourse in the town centre, a street away from the promenade. There are hundreds of tourists milling about, many of them freshly arrived. A few gulls wheel overhead, calling, waiting for scraps. There’ll be plenty of those. Even from here I can smell the burger joints and the fish and chip shops which line the front.
It’s Sunday afternoon. I’m on my way to a football match with Tim and a couple of friends. He’s covering the match for the paper. Tyrone doesn’t stand on ceremony. He takes me by the elbow and pulls me away. My friends turn, at first surprised, then ready to wade in to help me. Tyrone turns towards them.
‘You really want to?’ he snarls.
‘It’s okay,’ I say quickly, before things get out of hand. No point in littering the neat herringbone paving with blood and bodies. ‘I’ll catch you up.’
Only I don’t catch them up, and I don’t see the match. I’m on a chair in a dull, dimly lit cellar bar opposite Tyrone and two other men who don’t look like they’re here for social chit chat. One of them sits impassively with his arms folded like an eighteen stone, muscle bound, malignant Buddha and, having fixed me with his eyes, leaves me wriggling there like a butterfly on a pin.
The other is so smooth he could slide under a door, mid-fifties, dark hair, dark eyes, dark suit, dark shoes and a dark mood. It’s the mood that scares me most; that and the knife.
The knife lies on the table between us. The blade is long and only about five centimetres wide at the hilt. The grip is unadorned steel. There’s nothing fancy about it, but there doesn’t need to be. It has a cold, functional look about it but not the functional look of a kitchen implement; no, this is completely different.
People use that phrase, the elephant in the room. Believe me when I tell you that this knife, its point and blade so sharp they look like they could cut through a hair longways, have a greater presence than a whole herd of elephants. My eyes keep returning to it. I find myself wondering about its provenance.
The smooth guy reaches an outstretched hand towards me. It seems a good idea to grasp it. I try to make the grip firm and manly.
‘George Mackie,’ he introduces himself. I pretend the name means nothing to me and I look at him blankly. I guess I want him to think I move in different circles. He frowns then waves a paw towards Tyrone. ‘Mr Keech, I think you know. This is Mr Denny.’ He indicates the torso to his right. ‘Mr Denny is someone you really don’t want to know,’ he says with a look that could fracture granite. ‘Imagine the most terrifying nightmare you’ve ever had. Imagine waking up to find it’s true. That’s Mr Denny.’
Denny hasn’t moved his eyes from me and, as far as I can tell, hasn’t so much as blinked. He’s as impassive as a wall. He folds his arms across his chest, and biceps larger than my head bulge outwards.
Mackie drums his fingers on the table and shakes his head, as if he’s troubled by some knotty problem. I want to tell him that his troubles pale into insignificance beside mine but I don’t think he’d be amused. I also want to tell him I’m not the heroic type. My usual response to threats of violence is to run away screaming like a girl, and that’s pretty much what I want to do now. He’s wasting an awful lot of time if he’s thinking of applying pressure.
I risk a glance towards Tyrone. He’s looking at me like he looked at those animals he used to torment, like he looked at all the kids he picked on; he’s got the same nasty gleam in his eyes. Watching creatures in pain is what passes for pleasure in Tyrone’s world. I get the same pang of fear in my gut and the same feeling of nausea I used to get when I was a child. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t forgotten what I said in court and what he said on the way out. He’s taller now and a bit stockier and he’s looking smart, dressed in a decent suit; he’s clean shaven and has an expensive haircut but a manicure and expensive clothes can’t hide the malevolence in his face.
I want to tell him I know what he is.
But I don’t.
‘What do you want?’ My voice has an annoying tremor. I cough to try and hide it.
‘Want?’ Mackie asks. ‘I want what any decent citizen wants, Phil. I can call you Phil, can’t I?’
‘You’re the one with the knife,’ I risk. ‘You can call me anything.’
He looks at me without a hint of a smile.
‘I get the feeling you’re not taking me seriously,’ he says. ‘Let me clarify. I’m a law-abiding citizen, Phil, and it hurts me when I see someone flouting the law and lying to our decent, hard-working detectives. There’s a criminal element in this town which should be incarcerated, locked away, the key disposed of where it can never be found.’
‘Amen to that,’ I don’t say.
He leans forward and casually picks up the knife. Now he throws it in the air where it turns a tight circle and drops back into his palm. He repeats this over and over. Then he stops suddenly and stabs the blade downwards. The point buries itself in the table top and the shaft quivers. I look at it and at Mackie.
‘I don’t understand,’ I say, but I think I do.
I watch with increasing alarm as Denny eases himself from his chair and walks round the table to stand behind me. I can feel his fists on the back of my chair. I want to swallow but my mouth is as dry as a sand dune. My breath is emerging rapidly and I can feel my heart rate rising into the danger zone.
‘Try,’ Mackie suggests. ‘Focus; let’s see if you can apply those legendary intellectual skills Mr Keech assures me you possess.’
‘I’ve got a degree in sociology and I work on a local rag; I failed mind reading.’
The blow to the side of my head sends a surge of pain through me. I’m disorientated, dizzy, and something around my head aches fiercely. I land heavily on the floor which adds another dimension to my discomfort. Two coarse hands lift me back into my chair. I try to focus on Mackie but it’s not easy.
‘Perhaps that will help you concentrate,’ he says, without irony. ‘Let’s start again shall we?’
‘Yes, please,’ I say. I’d like to think it’s bravado but I think it’s a lot closer to abject fear. ‘Just pretend I’m a moron with a second-class degree in sociology and no fucking idea what you’re talking about. Just tell me what you want.’
Mackie leans forward over the table, Denny leans over me from behind and suddenly I know the meaning of claustrophobia.
‘I want the wheels of justice to turn, I want you to stop obstructing their movement with your fucking, fictitious, fucking alibi and I want the package which Wayne Keech took from the fucking safe returned to its rightful, fucking owner or, better still, to me. Do I make myself clear?’
As clear as swamp water, I think. I risk a question.
Mackie sighs; it’s not a pleasant sound. He waves a hand languidly towards Tyrone, as if the effort to communicate with me is too tiring to contemplate.
Tyrone leans forward. ’It’s an envelope, A4 size, and it’s maybe a couple of inches thick. It’s sealed and there’s just one word on the front of it:JAYDEE. He spells it out for me. I want you to memorise that package. I want you to go to my kid brother and Tina Oldfield and I want you to make it clear that there will be dire fucking consequences if it isn’t handed over to Mr Mackie.’
I shrug. ‘Why don’t you ask him yourself? You can be very persuasive.’
Another blow sends me sprawling the other way. The chair spins away behind me but it isn’t spinning as much as my head and it settles more quickly. I’m still spinning when I’m dragged back to the table. This time I’m just flung over it, so my nose is almost touching the blade of the knife, and Denny is pressing my head so my left ear is crushed against the polished wood. All I can see is Tyrone, sideways. His smile looks even more unpleasant from this angle.
When they allow me to lift my head I’m still spinning, and my jaw feels like it’s been immobilised. I think I’ve lost a tooth. I’ve definitely lost my co-ordination. I doubt I can stand up.
‘Do you think Wayne would tell us anything?’ Mackie asks. ‘Do you think he would be co-operative, public spirited?’
I shake my head but only for a second. It hurts too much. ‘You’d just make him more stubborn.’
‘Oh, I’d sell my granny’s soul just to make you stop,’ I say. The words come out slowly as if I’ve just drunk a bottle of whisky. Punch drunk, I think.
‘Yeah, I think you would.’ He pulls the knife from the table and holds the point towards me. He makes a sudden stabbing motion which has me pulling foolishly backwards. ‘Boo!’ he says and laughs. ‘Withdraw your statement,’ he says. He spins the knife again and catches it then jabs at me once more. Only this time the blade just catches my cheek and I feel a trickle of blood on my skin. ‘I want the package.’ he says. ‘You tell him I want the package. If I don’t get what I want, I’ll turn my attention to Miss Oldfield; tell him that.’
Denny steps back to allow me to stand but standing is pretty difficult under the circumstances. Suddenly I need the bathroom but I think maybe I’ll not ask to use the facilities. I can wait. My legs can hardly sustain me as I head towards the door but I focus hard. I’ve got to get out of here.
‘Mr Tyler,’ Mackie calls.
I stop and turn. I’m quaking now. As I turn, something flies past me, inches from my face, and lands with a sickening thud in the door behind me. I don’t need to ask what it is.
‘Don’t make me send Mr Denny to find you, will you?’
My hands fumble at the door and I let myself out. A minute later I’m in the street, in the fresh evening air and everyone around me is acting as if nothing has happened. No-one even looks at me. For some reason I just can’t understand, I want to laugh. Only laughing hurts so I just try a silly smile. That hurts too.
I’ve got to find Wayne.