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I just wish she’d told me and I hadn’t found out about it in the pub. But that’s how it goes, something has to happen first before someone opens their mouth. I could’ve protected her if I’d known.
+++++I come over for the funeral. I can hardly remember the last time I was here. For an old girl she was quite handy with a computer, talked hours on Skype, and I watched her slowly grow old. She’d asked me a few times to come back home, but I was working, and avoiding the people I love.
+++++I got the phone call ten days ago from one of her neighbours. They’d called the police after nobody’d seen her for a week, and they found her lifeless body in bed. She’d passed away in her sleep.
+++++I’m staying in one of the holiday cottages. I’ve got two weeks to sort out her affairs. My boss wasn’t happy, but he knew he couldn’t stop me. She was the only family I had left.
+++++The first day I hire a skip, work my way through her possessions. Box the things I want to give to charity and throw the rest out. It’s raining and I’m soaked through to the skin, but it has to be done. I keep a few photographs, a watch that belonged to my father, nothing else. That night I fall asleep within seconds. The next night I go to the pub.
+++++It’s a Friday night. All the heavy drinkers are out, downing pint after pint. I take my beer and find an empty table in the corner. There’s only one chair left. The others have been taken by another table. There’s a group of about fifteen people. The guys are on pints of lager, the girls gin and tonic or something like that, playing some drinking game.
+++++“Next door up for sale yet?” somebody says.
+++++I prick up my ears.
+++++“No, but there’s a guy emptying the place. Boxes all over the house,” another one says. “Got myself a computer. Don’t think he noticed.”
+++++What the fuck? I can’t believe what I’m hearing.
+++++“Anything I might like?”
+++++“Dunno. Come over and have a look.”
+++++Both men are skinny. They have the same hair, same face. Fingers yellow from years of smoking. Brothers.
+++++“Remember Halloween?” the first one says. “The old bag nearly had a heart attack.”
+++++I want to go over and bury my fist in his face, but I stay where I am, drink my pint and listen, force myself to stay calm. They keep going like this, making fun of her, retelling stories of how they terrorised her. When I finish my drink, I’ve heard enough. I know what I have to do now.
+++++I get up and they look over. I don’t think the guy who lives beside her recognises me. I’d been wearing a rain jacket and baseball cap when I loaded the skip. I push past them and go straight to her house, wonder how the fuck they could’ve gotten in. I check the doors and windows. All are securely locked, nothing has been opened by force. I climb the stairs and open the hatch to the loft, pull down the ladder.
+++++The roof in the loft is high. There’s enough room to store the Christmas decorations and boxes of stuff she couldn’t bring herself to throw out. It’s behind there where I find the hole in the wall, leading directly into next door. I want to go through, have a look, but I don’t. I think about all the DNA I might leave behind, the fibres. I’m not stupid. I need to fix the hole, sell the house and go back home. I’d seen piles of bricks in the back garden from when her second husband was still alive. Bags of cement in the garage. I’d get right to it in the morning.
+++++I switch off all the lights. I know it’s just a matter of time before they come. I sit and wait, think about how they treated her, how she died on her own.
+++++It’s half past three when I hear them. They don’t make any attempt to be quiet. I’m ready. I can see the flashlight getting brighter, then the first one is through. Then the second — I hit him with a hammer, to the back of the head, and he goes down. Doesn’t move.
+++++The first one turns around.
+++++“You,” he says.
+++++I don’t let him say anything else, just do what I came for. With each blow I think of her. How frightened she must’ve been. The times she’d asked me to come back home, and I didn’t. I make it last, but at the end I just feel empty, and I’m ready to leave. In the morning I get the bricks and the cement.
+++++The cavity wall no longer has a cavity, but is beautifully finished off. There’s a new wooden floor. The old boards disposed of in the wood burner.
+++++The house sells in less than three weeks.

Compensation

“You’ve gotta help me,” Tommy said when I opened the door. I hadn’t seen him in a month and he looked like shit. Bust nose, torn shirt. Stains on his jeans I hoped weren’t piss.
+++++“Fuck, Tommy. What’s it this time?”
+++++I stood aside and he walked past me into the kitchen and sat down. The smell of booze and piss followed, and my suspicions were confirmed.
+++++“Tony wants to kill me,” he said. “Said if I don’t get it all back, he’ll cut me up.”
+++++“Get what back?”
+++++“Everything. The watch I gave you, the radio.”
+++++“You didn’t give me anything.”
+++++“Two weeks ago,” he shouted.
+++++I had no time for his bullshit. I was hungry and tired and I wanted to eat and go to bed. Tommy didn’t make any fucking sense. I just wanted him to leave.
+++++“You’re pissed, Tommy. You’re not making any sense. Go home. Sleep it off.”
+++++He shook his head. “You don’t get it. The house . . . it’s Tony’s mother’s. How the fuck could I know. I never –”
+++++“You broke into his mother’s house? Are you fucking insane?”
+++++“I didn’t fucking know.”
+++++“What the hell, Tommy? You’re just like him. Like the rest of them.”
+++++Starting fights. Taking stuff that didn’t fucking belong to him. Same shit our old man got up to. Who could blame him? Dad hadn’t exactly been father-of-the-year material. He’d been in and out of prison, more in than out, and the little time we had with him Tommy did everything to impress him. Like some fucking performing monkey.
+++++Every time dad came out he promised us he’d changed. Then he’d take us to some greasy spoon and meet up with his loser friends. Tony, who fancied himself the boss when dad wasn’t around. Made everyone call him Tony, as in Tony Soprano. Like that would make him some big-shot gangster. Skinny, the fat arse driver. Couldn’t run five yards without stopping to catch a breath, but was Lewis Hamilton behind the wheel. Then there were Eggy and Cas, two guys who didn’t have anything better to do than follow in their father’s footsteps.
+++++Dad would buy us an all-day breakfast and tell us to scoot off into the corner while these dumb fucks decided which place to break into next. It didn’t take long before the cops showed up at our flat again. Two, maybe three months. Then they’d haul his arse off for another stint at her Majesty’s Service.
+++++The last time dad came out he lasted two weeks. Thirteen pints, and he thought he could fly. All the talking in the world couldn’t stop him trying, and Tommy and I watched as he impaled himself on a metal railing. Fucking arsehole didn’t even die straight away. Days of hanging around the hospital, waiting for him to go. Tommy had nightmares for months.
+++++“I need it back. All of it,” he said again.
+++++“You didn’t give me anything. I haven’t seen you in a month. Maybe if you’d stay off the booze for a while you’d fucking remember.”
+++++“He’s gonna kill me, Alex.”
+++++I’ll fucking kill you.”
+++++Tommy’s head dropped. I watched him look at his dirty hands, the bitten down nails.
+++++“Okay, I’ll talk to him,” I said eventually. “That’s all. See what he says. Maybe we can work something out.”
+++++“I’m sorry,” he said, his words hardly audible.
+++++“Go have a shower. You can stay here tonight.”
+++++There wasn’t much to say about Tommy. He was my brother, but there was something amiss, like he wasn’t the finished product. He’d never been particularly smart, always following the lead of others, never thinking for himself.
+++++I watched him shuffle towards the bathroom, then went to get some spare clothes for him and pushed them through the gap in the door.
+++++After dad went, mum split, moving to some village in Devon where nobody knew her. Took everything with her, except us, and Tommy and me had to move in with my dad’s parents. Neither of them worked and Tommy stopped going to school. They told him he didn’t have to. The council would take care of him if he played it right.
+++++I moved out as soon as I could. Started working two jobs just so I could afford the rent. I wanted something more. To do better than my dead-beat grandparents and Tommy.
+++++Tommy came back into the kitchen. He’d cleaned up, even had a shave, and he looked like the brother I used to know. He sat back down on the seat I’d just disinfected and smiled. I’m sure the bastard knew I wouldn’t turn my back on him.
+++++I put two plates on the table, the remains of last night’s pizza. Tommy went for it, almost choking on it, and not for the first time I considered how much easier life would be without him.
+++++“You really gonna talk to him?” he said, his mouth full.
+++++“What choice do I have?”
+++++“You could’ve kicked me out.”
+++++I didn’t reply.

***

I went to see Tony the next morning. Tommy stayed home, too scared to come out. Tony’s operation had upgraded from the greasy spoon to a second-hand-car dealership. He had a small office that stank of motor oil and cigarettes.
+++++There’s no sign of Tony, just his sons, Eggy and Cas.
+++++“I was wondering when you’d turn up,” Cas said when he saw me.
+++++Cas was short for Casanova. He’d always fancied himself a ladies’ man. He looked good – tanned and healthy, ripped. I’d hoped he’d gone to fat by now, but he’d never looked better.
+++++“Cas. Eggy.” I nodded to them. They were ten years older than me. I’d always felt uncomfortable around them, out of place.
+++++“Your dad here?” I said.
+++++“Out of the country for a while. I’m running the business right now,” Cas said.
+++++“How’d you know it was Tommy?” I said. He knew why I was here and there was no point in exchanging pleasantries.
+++++“My gran’s 78. D’you think we wouldn’t keep an eye on her? He was lucky she wasn’t home or you’d be arranging a funeral now.”
+++++He looked at Eggy. “Get me the laptop.”
+++++Eggy went out of the office and came back a minute later with the laptop. He fired it up and I waited.
+++++As I watched the footage of my brother stuffing silverware and jewellery into his rucksack I wanted to scream. I thought about going back home, grabbing the son of a bitch and throwing him to the wolves, but me and my fucking sense of loyalty wouldn’t let me. He was still my brother.
+++++“How much?” I said.
+++++“Eight grand and we call it even,” Cas said.
+++++“Fuck, Cas. That crap’s not worth half that.”
+++++“Eight grand. And I’m being generous.”
+++++“I haven’t got that kind of money.”
+++++Cas shrugged. “Not my problem.”
+++++“It’ll take me a while. A hundred, maybe one-fifty a month.”
+++++“Four weeks. He pays or he can talk things over with Eggy.”
+++++“How the fuck am I supposed to come up with that kind of money? I’m just getting by working two jobs.”
+++++“As I said, not my problem.”
+++++“C’mon.”
+++++“Four weeks.”
+++++He opened a draw, pulled out a gun and dropped it on the desk. I got the hint, and I walked out of the office while I still could.

***

I’m not proud of what I did next, but I went home, dragged Tommy out of bed and beat the crap out of him. When it was over, he lay on the floor, bleeding and whimpering like a wounded dog.
+++++“Every time you drag me into this shit,” I shouted. “What the fuck’s wrong with you? Why can’t you get a fucking job like everyone else?”
+++++“I’m sorry,” he cried.
+++++“Fuck you.”
+++++I stormed out of the bedroom, shaking, my knuckles covered in my brother’s blood. It took me another half an hour, a cuppa and a shower to calm down. I knew I had to get a loan from the bank. There was no other way of paying back that amount of money. I grabbed the phone and arranged a meeting for the afternoon.

***

When I got back from the bank Tommy was pacing the living room. The stink of cigarettes hung in the air.
+++++“Did you get it?” he said.
+++++“Yeah, I got it. But it’ll take me five years to pay it off. And don’t think you’re not helping. I talked to some people.”
+++++“You what?”
+++++“You fucking heard me. I’m not doing this on my own. You’re gonna work. A proper job. You better get your fucking shit together.”
+++++“Okay,” he said. “Okay.” He looked at me. “So, where is it?”
+++++I pulled eight bundles of twenty pound notes out of my bag and put them on the table.
+++++“That’s what eight grand looks like, huh?” he said.
+++++“This is the last time,” I said. “I’ll pay Cas tomorrow and then you get a job, move in with me.”
+++++“Yeah, sure.”
+++++I should’ve known right then, but I was tired. The last twenty-four hours had taken its toll. The adrenalin had worn off and all that was left was exhaustion.
+++++When I got up the next morning Tommy was gone and so was the money, all eight grand. I called Cas, hoping that maybe once in his fucked up life my brother had done the right thing, but Tommy hadn’t shown up. He’d taken the money and he was gone.

***

Four weeks later I was sitting, tied to a chair, in an abandoned warehouse with a cotton sack over my head.
+++++“Told you he was dumb as shit,” I heard my brother say. “This’ll get the Romanians off our backs.”
+++++“You’re sick,” Eggy said, laughing.
+++++They removed the sack and I blinked away the bright light.
+++++“What the fuck, Tommy?” I shouted. “Untie me.”
+++++“No can do,” Tommy said, shaking his head. “See, all your life you treated me like you’re something better. Like you’re some fucking genius, too good for me and dad. Well, fuck you. This is me, paying you back for everything, for the beatings. In about ten minutes those crazy fucking Romanians will march in here and they’ll find the fucker who broke into their house.” He smiled. “We agreed to help.”
+++++Eggy laughed. “You know, your brother deserves more credit than you ever gave him. This was all his idea.”
+++++I looked from him to Tommy. I couldn’t believe it, after everything I’d done for him.
+++++“What about the money?” I said.
+++++“Compensation for all my troubles,” Tommy said.
+++++“I’ve always been there for you.”
+++++“No. You fucking lectured me. You fucking put me down.”
+++++“Because I wanted something better for you,” I shouted. “And you do this?”
+++++“The Romanians are moving in,” he said, calmly. “We had to come to an agreement with them. So we fabricated a break-in, then told them we’d help get the guy. And they accepted.”
+++++“You know they’ll kill me, right?” I said.
+++++“We all have to die some day.”
+++++“I’m your brother.”
+++++“You were never my brother.”
+++++I heard noises near the entrance, then Cas walked in with the Romanians. I looked at my brother.
+++++“Tommy, please.”
+++++He pointed at his face, the cuts and bruises. “Too late,” he said. And he turned and walked out.

Cherry Red Lipstick

I opened the door, and there she was, five-four, petit, attractive, her hands gripping the strap of her handbag. She flashed me a smile, her cherry-red lips thinning.
+++++“Hi, Will.”
+++++“Cherry? What you doing here?”
+++++“Thought we could go see a film,” she said.
+++++“It’s nine in the morning. I’ve gotta work. I’m late as it is.”
+++++“Maybe later?”
+++++“Cherry.”
+++++She didn’t listen, just turned and walked away. I called after her, but she kept on walking and I closed the door.
+++++I wasn’t working, of course. She probably knew that. I was constantly coming up with new excuses why we couldn’t go out. I’d changed the hours I worked. Took a different route into town. Replaced the locks. She hadn’t got the message.
+++++When she started at the company, the first thing I noticed was the cherry-red lipstick. She looked sweet. I called her Cherry, and she’d blushed.
+++++The name stayed, but so did she.
+++++The last place I ever thought I’d go looking for help was my brother. It probably wasn’t the brightest idea I’d had. I was still convinced that he must’ve been adopted or dropped on the head, or fuck, been accidentally exchanged at the hospital. But after almost a year of looking over my shoulder at every turn, and seeing her face everywhere I looked, I was slowly losing it. Panic attacks, headaches, drinking. Christ, my best friend these days was the doctor next door to where I worked, giving me a shot every time I had an attack. I didn’t even know if that shit really worked or if I just imagined it was doing me good. He always had the injection ready, as soon as I walked into his practice – ready to stab me in the ass.
+++++John met me at the bar, a pitcher of fuck-knows-what in front of him. When he saw me coming he grabbed it and told me to get the glasses, and we took a seat well away from the windows, just in case. Like I said, I was losing it.
+++++“So, what’s the big fucking emergency then?” he said.
+++++Straight to the point. No, Hi little brother. How’s it going? To be honest, most of the time John was a complete ass. Couldn’t even call his own wife by name, or his daughter. They were shes and ladies and that was that. His son was a different matter, couldn’t shut up about him. Logan this and Logan that.
+++++“I’ve got a problem,” I said.
+++++“And you only figured this out now?”
+++++“Fucking hell, John, be serious. Just for once.”
+++++He poured the drinks and took a swig, then put his glass back on the table.
+++++“Okay, tell me,” he said.
+++++“There’s this girl.”
+++++“Yes? And that’s a problem?”
+++++“She’s stalking me.”
+++++John burst out laughing, spitting drink across the table. “Who the fuck would wanna stalk you? No offence, handsome, but you’re boring as shit, Will. Logan has a better sense of humour and he’s three.”
+++++“Gee, thanks, John. Flattery and insult in one sentence.”
+++++“C’mon, your idea of having fun is going to some boring ass book reading. When was the last time you went to a club and woke up with some hottie next to you?”
+++++“That would be the time Cherry, remember, the psycho, started stalking me,” I said, having a drink. There was a strong presence of vodka, but not much else. “Three weeks we were together, and the whole time she kept tabs on me. Checking my phone, calling my work, turning up at my place unannounced. She’s mental.”
+++++“You mean that cute thing with the dark hair?” John said.
+++++I nodded.
+++++“All she needs is a good seeing to,” he said. “Once she remembers that tiny dick of yours, she’ll run a mile.”
+++++I wanted to slap him. I thought because we were family he would at least try and understand what I was going through.
+++++“Fuck you, John.” I got up.
+++++“Sit down. I’m just busting your balls, man. Told you, you’ve got no fucking sense of humour.”
+++++John scratched the back of his head. “How about going to the cops?”
+++++“And saying what? She could say anything. That I raped her. Who’s gonna believe me? I’m the guy.”
+++++John shrugged. “You could move.”
+++++“I’m not moving. What about my job? My friends?”
+++++“Move back home, till things settle,” he said. “If we all know about her, what she’s like, she can’t do shit. Anyway, my lady’s spoiling for a fight. She gets her hands on her, you won’t have to worry.”
+++++For the first time John was actually starting to make sense. I could move back home. My mother would love it, someone to fuss over, and dad could drive me to work. After our first pitcher, the idea of moving into my old attic room appealed more and more. By the end of the second, it was a done deal.
+++++When the taxi dropped me off at my place three hours later, I’d made up my mind. John was going to talk to our parents. I was going to pack my bags.
+++++Fumbling for my key, the phone in my pocket started ringing. I managed to get the key, push it into the door, and grab the phone before it went to voice mail.
+++++“Fuck, Will. You home yet?” John said.
+++++“Yeah, just walking in.”
+++++“She’s got a key.”
+++++“Who?”
+++++“Your psycho stalker. Cherry. She’s got a key. Came by my house when we were out and told my lady some fucked up story about being your girlfriend and losing her key to your place. Tears and all.” He took a deep breath. “She gave Cherry the spare key.”
+++++I wasn’t really listening to John anymore. I’d switched on the light. And there, right in front of me, was Cherry. The cherry-red lipstick smeared across her cheeks. She had a kitchen knife in her hand. The silver one with the wide blade.
+++++I didn’t even have time to close my eyes.