Category Archives: Tom Leins


Christmas Eve… in the drunk tank.

+++++I’m on a concrete bed, sleeping off a heavy session. It started with a quiet pint in the Cock & Whistle and ended with a knife-fight in the Dirty Lemon. The other guy had a fucking meat cleaver, so I must have been drunk to try and fight him…


+++++A bulbous bastard named Salvatore ‘Sweaty’ Moretti shakes me awake. He’s a permanently nervous safecracker who went down in local folklore after losing his footing in a pool of his own perspiration and cracking his skull on the wrought iron door of the safe he had just robbed. Surgeons tried to repair his ruptured skull meat with a steel plate, but it got infected, and the back of his head swelled up like a fucking cantaloupe.

+++++I assume that the sweaty old shit-bag wants my ratty grey blanket, so I plant a size 11 on his chest and kick him into the rancid cinderblock wall.

+++++He’s too drunk to talk and barely grunts as his steel plate clatters against the crumbling masonry.

+++++A pair of elderly cops called Benson and Hedges lurk on the other side of the rusty cage, leering at me. Hedges stubs out his cigarette on an egg mayonnaise sandwich and drops it on a stainless steel breakfast tray, which Benson kicks under the bars towards me.

+++++“Something to line the stomach, young man?”

+++++I toss it back through the bars at him. It falls apart at Benson’s feet, but he picks it up and eats it anyway, grinning at me through misshapen, egg-smeared teeth.

+++++“Suit your fucking self, darling.”


+++++Four hours later.

+++++Check-out time.

+++++I emerge blinking into the wintry lunchtime glare.

+++++Outside the cop-shop, I’m met by a geriatric named Holder. He’s the hotel detective at the Excelsior. He’s wearing a threadbare electric blue suit and shuffles nervously from foot to foot.

+++++“Mr. Rey? One of our esteemed guests would like a few moments of your time.”

+++++I try to walk past him, but he halts me with a liver-spotted hand.

+++++“Do I have a choice?”

+++++He pats the gun-shaped bulge under his armpit and smiles awkwardly.

+++++“Everyone has a choice, Mr. Rey.”

+++++I grunt.

+++++“Get shot in the front, or get shot in the back, right?”

+++++He shrugs and gestures to a tiny hatchback in the far corner of the car park.

+++++Fuck it.

+++++I was heading that way anyway…


+++++The tinsel-strewn Excelsior Hotel lobby throbs with gaudy horror. Whoever was in charge of the Christmas decorations went too far, and the garish decor reminds me of an overly made-up Harbourside whore.

+++++The Excelsior is probably the only hotel in Paignton that stays full in the dead of winter. It’s also the only hotel that offers seven channels of complimentary softcore pornography. Go figure.

+++++Holder steers me towards the service elevator.

+++++“This way. Let’s avoid the crowd.”

+++++Some crowd. The cheap plastic Christmas tree next to the reception desk looks more alive than most of the fucking guests.


+++++Dominic Dominguez stays at the Excelsior every Christmas. Fuck knows why.

+++++When I step inside his suite, he is balanced precariously on the edge of a sturdy barstool, playing on a fruit machine that is on loan from the Greasy Nugget amusement arcade. Holder told me that the mechanism had been rigged, so it pays out every third game.

+++++Dominguez is a big bastard – fatter than a shithouse spider. His enormous bulk gives him a curiously ageless quality, although I notice that his dark hair is now threaded with grey.

+++++He glances at me briefly and wets his lips on a fluorescent umbrella drink.

+++++“You know what I like most about this town, Mr. Rey?”

+++++I shrug.

+++++“Strong beds and even stronger drinks?”

+++++His expression sours.

+++++“Everyone and everything is for sale. Even you.”

+++++He says something else, but the metallic rumble of falling coins blots out his words.

+++++He offers me a coprophagous grin, and I slump onto the oversized bed, suddenly bone-weary.


+++++People say Dominguez accrued his wealth through a lucrative chain of boy-brothels in the Midlands, but really I have no idea.

+++++However he earned his money, he has an awful fucking lot of it. The fat fucker offered me £750 to track down the Sexy Santa costume that Cha Cha Chilkins – ‘Paignton’s premier gender illusionist’ – was wearing when she had a heart attack last Christmas, during the ‘Christmas is a Drag’ seasonal revue at the Palace Avenue Theatre.

+++++Sure, I’ve taken stranger jobs in my time, but I almost changed my mind when Dominguez said that he wanted the outfit for his fucking mother…


+++++It’s too cold to trawl my usual haunts, so I head straight to the Greasy Nugget on Torbay Road.

+++++A local cabaret hack called Louie Drambuie told me that a couple of members of Cha Cha’s old chorus line work out of the amusement arcade, offering punters the old Paignton two-step – a side-street suck-and-fuck – in one of the lock-ups round the back.

+++++As I walk in, ‘Another Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas’ by Gary Glitter is being played over the Tannoy. The volume has been turned up to drown out the coin-op cacophony.

+++++It is so loud that I swear I can hear the sound of stack-heeled youngsters being dragged across linoleum and hauled into an untaxed transit van during the fadeout…


+++++The Greasy Nugget is awash with stretched red fabric and sick-stained synthetic beards. People are passing bottles of rot-gut between them – drunken faces congealed with pleasure. I grab an unmarked bottle off a passed-out man in a badly soiled Santa suit and take a glug.

+++++He’s face down next to the cashier’s cage, and people are treading on him as they try to get past. I notice that the backside of his suit is slick with anal mucus, and I really wish I hadn’t stolen his drink.

+++++The black-market booze hits me like a sledgehammer, and I press deeper into the crowd. It’s hotter than hell, and I’m sweating bullets.

+++++I pick my way through the throng and walk the perimeter of the building, where the nooks and crannies are darker than God’s fucking pockets. Paignton sure hides its secrets well. There is a bit of rough trade loitering at the back of the building, but no one who could convincingly perform in a drag act – even in Paignton.

+++++I have almost completed my circuit, when I see the outfit. It has a fur-lined hood and ‘Cha Cha’ written across the back in diamante studs.

+++++I tap the girl on the shoulder, and she turns around sharply. I’m shocked to see deep purple bruising down the left side of her face.

+++++I try to clear my throat, but only succeed in coughing up a phlegmy string of liquor. I spit it on the floor.

+++++“Nice dress.”

+++++She shrugs.

+++++“My boyfriend won it in a card game. On Winner Street. Gave it to me to say sorry.”

+++++She gestures absentmindedly at the hideous bruise, and then her arms drop to her side like those of a drunken rag-doll.

+++++“Early Christmas present…”

+++++She has narrow hips and a flat stomach, and Cha Cha’s voluminous outfit looks baggy on her.

+++++“I’m going to need you to take the dress off, sweetheart.”

+++++She pouts.


+++++I pat my pockets, but Dominguez said cash on delivery, and I let it slide because I knew that the fat motherfucker was good for it.

+++++“£100 if you want to do it yourself with your big strong hands.”

+++++She removes her bubble-gum and presses it against the fruit machine she has been leaning against.

+++++“£150 if you want me to blow you afterward… my boyfriend won’t mind – honest.”

+++++“Who’s your boyfriend?”


+++++I turn around slowly.

+++++The man in front of me smells like a piss-soaked lift. His name is ‘Ten Tonne’ Teddy Tucker. He used to do strong-arm work for the self-styled Foxhole Mafia, but his body has long since failed him, and now he has to travel between pubs and drinking clubs using a fucking mobility scooter.

+++++Straight away I wish he weren’t wearing a Santa suit, as I know I’m going to feel awfully conflicted when I hit him in a minute.

+++++He struggles to clamber out of his scooter and throws a lazy punch in my direction. It travels so slowly I probably have time to pop out for a quick pint before it arrives…

+++++I side-step the blow and hammer a hard right hook into his ear. I’m working up to another shot when he tries to grab me by the throat.

+++++He lets out a weird, sickly little laugh.

+++++“I’m gonna ruin you, cunt.”

+++++He has three fingers missing on his left hand – removed by a former employer after a ‘workplace dispute’ – and I easily wriggle free of his grasp.

+++++I slam a punch into his enormous gut and he doubles over, hot vomit splattering on his rented Santa suit. I bounce his skull off the nearest fruit machine, hard, and he drops to his knees, eyes the colour of tainted milk. I bounce him off the machine a second time, and this time it pays out, coughing up its grubby, coppery loot.

+++++I cram a handful of spilled coins in his mouth and kick his rotten jaw shut. It closes with a sick crunch.

+++++I turn back to the girl, but the dress is already around her ankles, like a puddle of old piss.


+++++She shrugs, shivering in her tattered underwear.

+++++“Don’t be. I’m not.”


+++++When I arrive back at the Excelsior, an elderly woman I assume to be Dominguez’s mother is reclining on a chaise-longue, wearing nothing except a flimsy, cellophane-like nightgown. She has to be at least 80 and has a heavily-medicated care-in-the-community expression.

+++++“Good evening, Mrs. Dominguez…”

+++++She glances at me, then cackles, toothlessly.

+++++I ball up the outfit and throw it to Dominguez for inspection. Then I wipe my bloody hands on his pastel Camberwick bedspread.

+++++He waddles across the room towards me, wonky grin etched across his fat face, and stuffs the grubby banknotes down the front of my jeans with his podgy fingers – like I’m a fucking carnival stripper. I can feel his hot breath on my cheek as his ragged fingernail snags my pubic hair.

+++++“Merry Christmas, Mr. Rey. Don’t spend it all at once.”

+++++I take a parting look at his mother, and she is still chuckling to herself. At least someone around here has something to laugh about…


Dry Salvage

Spaulding was in his eighties, and looked far too vulnerable to put a proper beating on, but I had agreed to give Marie Andretti at least five of his teeth in order to get my full fee. They came loose effortlessly, and the old bastard bled like a stuck pig regardless.

+++++Last year Spaulding and his associates performed 24 black-market kidney transplants in a makeshift operating room up at Paignton Yards. The way the scam was set up, middlemen took most of the money, and the surgical procedure was so shoddy that the recipient often contracted hepatitis or even HIV from the dirty medical equipment.

+++++One of Spaulding’s most recent clients was Marie’s nephew, Johnny Angelillo.

+++++No sooner had Johnny received the transplant, Spaulding’s stooges grabbed him and dragged him back into the operating theatre – ripped the organ right out of him, and let him bleed out on the gravel. Apparently, they had received a higher offer… In this town, everyone has a price.


+++++When I eventually arrive back at my rooming house, the desk-jockey eyes my bloody shirt suspiciously. He probably wants to know how soon before he rents the room out again. As I trudge up the stairs the drops of blood are barely noticeable on the maroon carpet. I inspect the gaping knife wound in my shoulder in the mirror of the communal bathroom. It looks fucking ugly. I pack it with cheap toilet paper and stumble down the hallway to my room. The door is ajar. I rub my eyeballs with bruised knuckles.


+++++My least favourite ex-cop. He is sat on my bed in a greasy suit, rat-tail sap in his right hand, cock pulsing against his tight trousers.

+++++He doesn’t look well. His skin the colour of cement dust, and big clumps of his lank hair seem to be missing.

+++++He points at my shirt with a ragged, over-long fingernail.

+++++“Still whoring yourself out to the highest bidder?”

+++++“Don’t blame me, blame market forces.”


+++++I take a hard look at him. He was always fat, but he has bloated up like a waterlogged corpse.

+++++“I thought you had left town?”

+++++He shrugs.

+++++Earlier this year he was chased out of Paignton by his ex-cop buddies after sodomising two rent-boys with a retractable baton. Afterwards, he apparently made them sodomise one another, while he wanked into a jam jar. He’s a sick fucker.

+++++I heard that he was living in Plymouth, with his ex-brother-in-law, above an ‘extreme’ tattoo parlour.

+++++I slowly reach into my boot for my pig-knife.

+++++“Don’t flatter yourself, sweetheart. I’ve won better looking boys than you in poker games.”

+++++I grunt, but keep hold of the blade.

+++++“Why are you here?”

+++++“Everyone comes back to Paignton sooner or later – even if it is just to die.”

+++++He offers me a brief, demented cackle and coughs into his handkerchief melodramatically.

+++++“Do you know Harlan Deloitte?”

+++++Paignton’s richest man.

+++++“Not personally.”


+++++“But you know of him?”

+++++Collector of the occult and the arcane.

+++++“Sure. His fucking reputation precedes him.”

+++++Hoarder of unknown horrors.

+++++“I have a job for you.”


+++++“What is this, one last pay-day, then you disappear into the sunset?”

+++++His yellow eyes twinkle, and he scratches his balls with the leather edge of the sap.

+++++“Something like that.”

+++++I glance down at my bloody clothing and feel the loose teeth in my pocket. My life feels like a series of lurid little moments – stitched together, badly.

+++++I nod, and Wet-Look offers me a rancid smile.

+++++His eyes bore into me, and I feel my balls creep up into my gut.


+++++24 hours later.

+++++The watery-looking winter sun hangs low above the ugly, scattered guesthouses on Newton Road, and casts long, awkward shadows across the railway line. One of those misshapen buildings is a halfway house for recently paroled sex offenders. At least two are crack-dens.

+++++I climb the loose breezeblock steps and enter the dented aluminium trailer that doubles as an office at Lock ‘n’ Roll Self Storage.

+++++“Mr Rey. Long time, no see.”

+++++I nod, wordlessly.

+++++Karl Krazinsky is slumped across a swivel chair behind a second-hand desk. His white cropped hair stands out against his garish purple and black jogging suit.

+++++The tracksuit is a size too small, and bulges in all of the wrong places.

+++++His eyes are blank and bloodshot. It’s after midday, so his black coffee will be laced with liqueur, or something else strong enough to dilute the bad memories. I understand all too well, but I don’t sympathise. Not after the things he and his family have done.

+++++“There has been a lot of water under the bridge, Mr Rey.”

+++++“A lot of other stuff, too.”

+++++He grunts. I put one of his brothers in hospital, another one in prison. Both of them deserved it.

+++++Frankly, I’m surprised I’m here.

+++++I knew Krazinsky when he was still called Giancarlo Rossi. Before witness protection. Before he managed a low-rent suburban self-storage unit. He was always dumber than a box of shit – a leg-breaker not a grifter. Even so, he moved up the ranks at an impressive clip.

+++++So many Andretti Family affiliates turned snitch over the last decade, local criminals nicknamed the witness protection programme the ‘Mafia Meat Locker’.

+++++Everything turned to shit when Tommy Andretti ended up in an actual meat locker, down in Plymouth, with his hair slicked back and his lips sewn shut. The wise-guy wisecrack didn’t seem so funny after that.

+++++Three of Rossi’s cousins were discovered in a self-storage unit later that month. Same ghoulish shtick. It may even have been one of the units on this site. No wonder Krazinsky looks so haunted. He can probably hear them whispering his old name as he waddles around the site at night with his fucking flashlight.

+++++He splashes another two fingers of Galliano into his coffee mug.

+++++“Drink, Rey?”


+++++Why break the habit of a lifetime…


+++++Wet-Look told me that Krazinsky was holding a stash of mummified body parts for Harlan Deloitte. Most people would dismiss Wet-Look as a fantasist, but I’ve learned not to underestimate him. According to his source, the limbs belonged to Latin American Nazis, and were found buried in Lanares Province, Chile, wrapped in a Swastika flag.

+++++Deloitte is bad fucking news. Whenever his name crops up in the kind of conversations that I have, a little piece of me dies inside. I had assumed that his interests were strictly local, but it appears that I am wrong. However Wet-Look found out, I’m impressed. This isn’t the kind of information you can shake out of a Winner Street stool-pigeon, or slap out of a bus station rent-boy.

+++++Krazinsky gazes at me thoughtfully.

+++++“Do you think you’re the only ghoul out here making me an offer?”

+++++“Honestly, I have no idea.”

+++++He looks uneasy, as well he might.

+++++When the bottle of liqueur is finished he leads me down the steps and into the labyrinthine, rusted steel maze.

+++++“Say, what’s the worst thing you have ever found in one of these units?

+++++He bristles.

+++++“I don’t look in the units, Rey. I value the customers’ privacy.”

+++++“But if the money runs out?”

+++++He shrugs.

+++++“Human ashes… shrink-wrapped parcels of marijuana… the dried-out husks of dead reptiles… jam-jars full of bodily fluids. I once found four Lithuanians sleeping on cot-beds. Hell, most of these damned units are empty now. Customers prefer newer facilities. Cleaner places with better security. Better management.”

+++++He trails off – bored, disinterested, so I stop talking.

+++++His eel-skin boots splash through the stagnant puddles, splattering the legs of his cheap tracksuit. Bloody rubber gloves dangle from his waist-band.

+++++We walk in silence, covering a lot of ground, until we are in the far corner of the lot – under the pines, where the sun never shines. I remember these woods. The care home I grew up in was nearby. Older boys with camouflage trousers, cigarette lighters and flick-knives would lead us into the bowels of the woods to show us their secret porn stashes.

+++++Krazinsky gestures to a rust-ravaged unit with his battered-looking flashlight. It looks older and more decrepit than him.

+++++“This is it.”

+++++He withdraws a bunch of keys from the pocket of his jogging suit, and unfastens the padlock.

+++++He steps back to allow me to pass, and hands me the flashlight. I switch on the torch. Its weak glow barely registers in the cavernous gloom. This unit must extend right back into the tree-line. I shuffle forwards, and stumble against something on the floor. I point the flashlight towards the ground.

+++++It’s a skeleton – face collapsed with rot, bones a deep, sick shade of yellow.

+++++Further back, I see a flicker of movement in the murkiness. I raise the flash-light.

+++++Too big to be a rat. Much too big. An unholy groan emanates from the back corner.

+++++I hear the creaking sound of old bones. A face with a complexion like a skinned rabbit lurches towards me from out of nowhere. I smash the butt of the flashlight into its face and it keels over with an inhuman shriek.

+++++I turn sharply towards Krazinsky in the doorway.

+++++He offers me a thin, bloodless smile.

+++++“I’m sorry, Mr Rey. Sometimes, the only way to succeed is to corrupt yourself.”

+++++He tries to slam the door, but I manage to thrust my fist into the gap. I feel the bones in my hand shatter. I slam my shoulder into the door, and send Krazinsky sprawling into the gravel.

+++++He tries to kick out at me, but I stomp his left knee. It gives way with a queasy crack and he screams in pain.

+++++I was always led to believe that anyone who crossed the Andretti Family ended up as landfill. They were well known for employing men with dark appetites to bury, dismember or dissolve their secrets. Maybe I was wrong.

+++++“I’m sorry, Rey…”

+++++“You will be.”

+++++I drag him back toward the doorway by the collar of his jogging suit, but the cheap fabric rips. He tries to scramble across the gravel, away from me, but a stamp sharply on his back. I crack open the door and haul his lumpy body through the gap – towards whatever fresh hell lurks inside.

+++++I retrieve the over-sized key-ring from the gravel and snap the padlock shut.

+++++As I walk away – broken hand throbbing with pain, Krazinsky’s wretched screams ring in my mangled ears.


+++++Inside Krazinsky’s office I retrieve a fresh bottle of Galliano from his filing cabinet. Helpfully, the dumb bastard filed it under ‘G’. I recline in his patched-up swivel chair, and half fill a stained coffee mug with the sickly liqueur.

+++++I start to work my way through the files, in search of Deloitte’s nasty Nazi shit, but quickly give up.

+++++Eventually, the pain from my shattered hand subsides. Eventually, a passing train drowns out Krazinsky’s howls.


+++++Overhead, the smoke from the hospital incinerator blurs the winter sky like a memory.

+++++When I get to the front gate, a drab, olive-green estate car is parked sideways across the dirt-track, blocking the exit. There is a bullet-hole in the windscreen.

+++++The driver unfolds himself from his seat and stretches. He has a Russian 8mm Baikal self-defence pistol, originally used for firing CS gas, in his left hand.

+++++His name is Butterknuckle. He has a shaven head and a badly pockmarked face. He’s big, but he’s not hard. He’s a standard-issue small town hood – the kind I’m not overly surprised to find myself going toe-to-toe with.

+++++He doesn’t point the gun at me, but I stop regardless. I take a closer look at the car.

+++++Harlan Deloitte is sat in the passenger seat, smoking a cheroot.

+++++He is 60, but looks 40. Fuck, I’m 40 but look closer to 60 on particularly bad days.

+++++He’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans and an expensive-looking overcoat, unbuttoned. He has a diamond stud in his left earlobe.

+++++He smiles easily.

+++++“Mr Rey, I presume?”

+++++I nod.

+++++“Where is Mr Krazinsky?”

+++++“Don’t worry. He’s among friends.”

+++++He looks disappointed, but his lips quickly curl into a nasty sneer.

+++++“Are you surprised to see me, Mr Rey?”

+++++“You know what, Harlan. Nothing much surprises me anymore.”

+++++“Hmm. Butterknuckle – pop the trunk.”

+++++“The trunk?”

+++++“Open the car boot, son.”

+++++He backs away, still training the gun on me.

+++++He opens the car boot and drags Wet-Look out by his hair. It comes out in clumps, so he hauls the fat man by his collar instead. His face is covered in minor lacerations, and his eyes are puffed shut. His trousers are soaked in blood, where it looks like he has been kneecapped.

+++++“What are we gonna do with these motherfuckers, Harlan?”

+++++“Throw them into a pit with a couple of broken bottles.”

+++++“Aw, man. Do I have to dig the pit?”

+++++Deloitte chuckles.

+++++“I was joking, son. Shoot them in the back and kick them into the weeds. They can die like rats.”

+++++Wet-Look is on his knees on the gravel. He looks disorientated. Butterknuckle raises the gun.

+++++“No last meal for you, fat man…”

+++++Wet-Look smiles his sick smile, and then leans across and clamps his yellow teeth on Butterknuckle’s right thigh. He screams. The gun discharges into the pine trees. Wet-Look adjusts his position and takes a bite out of the hood’s genitals.

+++++I can taste blood in my dry mouth. I lunge towards Deloitte and hit him – just about as hard as I have ever hit anyone. Only after I have punched him, do I realise that I’m using my broken hand. Like a corpse, his smile remains in place, even as his head crunches against the car’s metalwork. He keeps grinning, so I stop punching and start stomping.

+++++Wet-Look crawls across the gravel on his belly and places the Russian handgun against Deloitte’s scrawny neck. He pulls the trigger without a word, and we are both plastered in blood.

+++++Butterknuckle starts to hobble away from the bloodshed. Wet-Look aims the gun at his spinal column and squeezes, smearing him across the gravel.


+++++Two days later.

+++++I like my explosives the same way I like my pornography – homemade and volatile. I lob the improvised Molotov Cocktail towards Deloitte’s mansion with my left hand, and it smashes the window with a sharp crack. It wasn’t the window I was aiming for.

+++++“His study. That will work.”

+++++I turn to Wet-Look. He looks far too big for his NHS wheelchair. His head has been shaved, but there are small pink craters on his scalp where his hair was ripped out. The flames dance in his bleary eyes.

+++++“You’re a violent, predictable man, Joe Rey.”

+++++I shrug.

+++++“That’s why you keep hiring me, right?”

+++++He doesn’t answer me, just stares into the fire – until I wheel him back across the landscaped garden, back to the rest of our rotten lives.

Blue Christmas

“Why was Father Christmas upset when he got a sweater for Christmas?”
+++++I shrug.
+++++“Because he was hoping for a screamer or a moaner.”
+++++Clive Clayhill laughs gutturally, then offers me a nasty grin – his rotten teeth are the same colour as Elaine’s gravy. I push my empty plate away and scuff my chair back on the faded linoleum, feeling strangely nauseated.
+++++That’s what happens when you buy your Christmas crackers in the fucking Sex Shop…


It is Christmas day, and Clive is the only other guest staying at The Swanson. He is a spectacularly ugly man, even by local standards. His skull looks like a used roll-on deodorant – stray hairs plastered across the pale skin.
+++++I spent last Christmas in prison, so this place is a genuine step up for me. No one got me a present this year, but when I checked in, I found two pairs of mouldy crotch-less panties stuffed behind the radiator and a tube of genital wart cream in the bathroom cabinet.
+++++The Swanson used to be a hot-sheets hotel, and briefly functioned as a bail hostel for paroled sex offenders. Now it is supposedly under new management. Out of season, it is just a hotel with no guests.
+++++Elaine, the landlady, has strung up a few threadbare strands of tinsel in the TV lounge, and there is an artificial sprig of mistletoe in the lobby. I’m not sure whether the mistletoe is intended as a challenge or a threat: Elaine is half my height and twice my weight.
+++++I often hear Clive grunting like a hog through the paper-thin walls late at night. Sometimes he cries afterwards. I guess his willpower isn’t as strong as mine.


Clive smokes in silence as I finish my beer. There is no ashtray, so he drops his high-tar cigarette in an empty Skol can on the table. He lights a second, and passes me a black and white photograph. I vaguely recognise the suits and hairstyles from my childhood, but little else seems familiar.
+++++He gestures towards the two men – a pair of cops called Benson and Hedges– with the glowing end of his cigarette. Then he tells me that they abducted his younger sister back in 1984.
+++++I swallow his story and it sits heavier in my gut than Elaine’s roast dinner.
+++++Clive tells me that they are planning to snatch another girl.
+++++I start to feel sweaty. The gauzy dining room curtains twist lightly in the winter breeze.
+++++I ask Clive how he knows.
+++++He tells me he has been hired as their driver.


Clive told me that Benson and Hedges like to unwind at a place they call the Clubhouse. It’s an old portakabin that has been dumped in a field adjacent to the Ocean Spray Caravan Park.
+++++I manage to find a taxi idling next to the public toilets. The driver adds on a £10 surcharge, but doesn’t question the well-worn pick-axe handle across my lap.
+++++I trudge across the winter mud towards the ramshackle structure. The phrase ‘Trespassers Will Be Shot’ has been painted across an old floorboard and nailed to the wall. I hope it is an idle deterrent: I have already been shot once this year, and it wasn’t pretty.
+++++Despite the icy temperature, the door is wide open. A portable heater pumps out stale heat. Benson and Hedges are sitting on a faded leatherette couch, ties loosened, their shirts yellowed with sweat. Hedges is the larger of the two – handsome in a big-boned way, with a thick swathe of white hair spilling over his collar. Benson is thin and corpse-coloured, with stringy hair.
+++++The portakabin smells of burnt food and stale urine. A skeletal Christmas tree leans against the back wall, like an afterthought. The two men seem to be playing snap with a deck of pornographic playing cards.
+++++I shake the slush off my boots and tap on the doorframe with my pickaxe handle.
+++++“Planning a Christmas party, gentlemen?”
+++++“Who the fuck are you?”
+++++Hedges has a gap-toothed smile and a boil the size of a billiard ball on the side of his neck.
+++++“I’m a friend of Clive Clayhill.”
+++++“I wouldn’t admit that in public, pal. Clive Clayhill is a junkie cat burglar with a penchant for eight-year-olds.”
+++++I relax my sweaty grip on the pickaxe handle.
+++++A rotten chuckle bubbles up from Benson’s withered chest.
+++++“Out is he?”
+++++I’m not sure how to respond, so I grunt.
+++++“We have long memories, son. We knew Clive when he was wanking off other junkies for spare change. He has spent the last decade in Channing’s Wood. We were the ones who banged him up.”
+++++I grunt again.
+++++“Clayhill is a conniving little fucker – if he wants you out of the way it is for a reason.”
+++++I suddenly feel embarrassed and shuffle out of the portakabin.
+++++Hedges claps Benson on the shoulder.
+++++“Well, old friend, the plot fucking thickens…”
+++++Their diseased-sounding laughter follows me across the dead field.


I head back to The Swanson. The street is empty except for two burned-out cars, and a 12-year-old, breathing glue out of a plastic bag. The B&B sits between two weed-choked vacant lots. Last year, the body of a missing psychiatric patient was found in the condemned hotel that used to sit next door. The case made the national press. The killer was known as the Ladyscraper. You can still see scraps of faded yellow crime scene tape in the weeds, but only if you look hard enough.
+++++The TV lounge is empty, but the boxy television set crackles with canned laughter. Men who have been dead longer than I have been alive mug for the camera. The volume has been turned up loud enough to fucking wake the cadaverous bastards up again. I yank the power cord out the wall and the screen fades to black.
+++++I take the stairs two at a time, and bang on Elaine’s door with my clenched fist. As she opens it, her leopard-print robe falls open. She is wearing low-heeled shoes and no underwear.
+++++Behind her, the room is empty. The only sound I can hear is that of her vibrator, throbbing idly on the bedside table.
+++++“Changed your mind about that Christmas kiss, darlin’?”
+++++“Where’s Clive, Elaine?”
+++++She knots the robe and pouts. She has a thick white scar down the side of her chubby, heart-shaped face. It clashes with the freshly applied cherry-red lipstick.
+++++“How the fuck should I know? I’m his landlady, not his fucking parole officer.”


I stomp down the corridor. The lock on my door has been popped with a screwdriver. I don’t bother checking inside. I only have one item of value.
+++++Further down the hallway, Clive’s own door is ajar.
+++++He is laying on his bed, smoking. Naked. The ashtray is balanced on his sickly looking chest. In the wintry half-light his face looks raw and uneven, like a badly rendered wall.
+++++On the threadbare carpet, at the end of the bed, lies a half-deflated rubber sex doll.
+++++On top of Clive’s chest of drawers is my £5,000 retirement fund, still wrapped in the pillow case from my old rooming house.
+++++I drag him off the bed by his wisps of greasy hair, and he lands on his bony knees with a crack.
+++++He holds up his hands pleadingly. He tries to say something, but my pick-axe handle caves his teeth in before he has a chance.
+++++I want to say something smart, something threatening, but I don’t have the energy.
+++++I retrieve the pillowcase full of cash from the sideboard, and leave Clive drooling blood on the carpet. He tries to crawl after me, so I kick him in the gut – hard enough to rupture something.
+++++Elaine is standing in the corridor, robe open once again. The vibrator buzzes helplessly in her hand.
+++++She tries to peer round me, but I slam the flimsy door.
+++++I dip into the pillowcase and retrieve a £50 note. I hand it to Elaine.
+++++“Sorry about the mess…”
+++++She shrugs.
+++++“What mess?”
+++++I hand her another banknote and keep on walking.Fuck it.
+++++She shouts down the hallway at me: “Merry fucking Christmas to you too…”

Other People’s Blood

It is an ugly Friday, mid-morning. I am drinking in the softcore lounge at the Black Regent.
+++++At least it used to be called the Black Regent… the hotel was taken over by a national hotel chain two years ago, and the new name escapes me.
+++++Two men I don’t recognise walk into the TV lounge. The fat one is wearing a luminous-coloured t-shirt with the phrase ‘Amateur Gynaecologist’ emblazoned across it. I assume it is a joke, but in this town you never really know. After all, everyone needs a hobby…
+++++He is soaked in sweat and wheezing slightly, and although he doesn’t worry me, his companion does. The second man has a creased, savage-looking face, and his shirt is deeply stained with blood. He is holding a sawn-off shotgun. The barrel has been polished to a dark gleam, and I can almost see my bloodshot eyes in the reflection. Last year I saw a man shot at close range with a gun that looked a lot like this. Not in a suburban sex hotel, but in a derelict betting shop that had been preemptively decorated with industrial plastic sheeting. It made a real fucking mess.
+++++Come with us, says the Gynaecologist. I look around, to make sure that he is talking to me. I’ve been hustled out of plenty of bars in my time, but never a hotel TV lounge. I consider throwing a punch, but I really don’t want to spill my drink – not this early in the day, at least. I drain my beer and stand up – palms up, unthreateningly.
+++++The savage clubs me behind the ear with the shotgun butt, and my world goes black.


“Good morning, Mr Rey. I appreciate you making the effort not to get blood on my furniture.”
+++++I shrug. It wasn’t intentional. I’ve ruined my fair share of couches over the years.
+++++I recognise the man in the swivel chair. His name is Ted Columbus, and he is a disgraced televangelist. He has leathery skin and synthetic hair. I dislike him instantly, but not for those reasons.
+++++He offers me his hand, and I reluctantly shake the warm, pulpy flesh.
+++++“Can I get you a drink, Mr Rey?”
+++++I nod.
+++++“Two fingers of bourbon over one cube of ice.”
+++++“A sophisticate… I’m impressed.”
+++++“I’m no sophisticate. I’m just a small town drunk with a nasty hangover. This will help.”
+++++His loose mouth twitches.
+++++I down the drink and feel my liver quiver.
+++++“Can I be straight with you, Mr Rey?”
+++++I shrug, fingering the bloody lump on the edge of my skull.
+++++“Straight, gay… I’m not fussy.”
+++++He shudders slightly.
+++++“Your reputation precedes you, my friend. You seem to have a knack for finding those who don’t want to be found.”
+++++I don’t disagree.
+++++“I would like you to track down my step-son, Burke Pangbourne. It is a matter of some importance.”
+++++“Most people who want to hire me, they come to my fucking office and knock on the door. They don’t send their cronies to cosh me in a TV lounge.”
+++++He grunts.
+++++“I’m a busy man, Mr Rey. It isn’t always feasible to play by the rules.”
+++++I shrug again.
+++++“My fee is £100 per day. If I haven’t found your boy within seven days he is probably dead.”
+++++He looks visibly shaken, but nods.
+++++“Mr Rey, would you please follow me?”
+++++I make a beeline towards the spirits cabinet and splash another measure of scotch into my glass. I don’t bother with the ice cube this time.


“Are you married, Mr Rey?”
+++++He grunts.
+++++“Some things are worth fighting for, my friend.”
+++++Now it’s my turn to grunt.
+++++“Believe me, Columbus, if I had fought for Alouette some bastard or other would have ended up in the trauma unit. Probably me.”
+++++He sighs.
+++++“Married men need to make difficult decisions, Mr Rey.”
+++++He opens a door that leads onto an adjacent room.
+++++“This is my wife, Audrey.”
+++++The woman on the bed looks like she is rotting to death.
+++++“My physician tells me she has the malady.”
+++++Physician? I hope he isn’t referring to the fucking Gynaecologist.
+++++“Her condition is deteriorating rapidly, and my physician has urged me to track down Burke as a matter of some importance. He is her only living blood relative. As you can see, the rot has already destroyed her gut and groin. A transfusion may be her only hope.”
+++++I walk over to the bed and take a sip of my drink. In all of my years as a private investigator I have never seen anything quite like this.
+++++The woman is clearly unconscious, but Columbus leads me into the corner to discuss terms. He withdraws a money-clip from the breast pocket of his navy blue blazer.
+++++“£1,000, Mr Rey. I will pay you a further £1,000 if the transfusion is successful, and my wife survives the procedure.”
+++++I nod, and pocket the wedge.
+++++“Burke Pangbourne is an ungodly man, Mr Rey, and as such I advise you to proceed with extreme caution.”
+++++“I’ve tracked down plenty of dangerous men in the past, Columbus. I’m not worried.”
+++++“With all due respect, you haven’t met my step-son.”
+++++He clears his throat.
+++++“I trust you will use your utmost discretion when tracking him down. I do not want the world to know that Ted Columbus has paid money for the procurement of a rent boy – even in these trying circumstances.”
+++++Now it’s my turn to look shocked.
+++++“Rent boy?”
+++++He nods.
+++++“Unfortunately, Burke never appreciated my attempts at career advice. Much to my chagrin, he chose his own path.”
+++++He dabs at his sweaty brow with a handkerchief.
+++++Abruptly, Columbus opens his jacket, revealing a shoulder holster.
+++++“If our little venture fails, Mr Rey, I will put a bullet in Audrey’s skull myself. Any good husband would… Leon will show you out.”
+++++The Gynaecologist melts out of the shadows and grips my elbow. He grins unpleasantly through small brown teeth, and I feel slightly sick.


In Thighs & Fries the plastic chairs are reserved for customers. I take one anyway.
+++++Good looking boys with bloodshot eyes employed to serve the chicken, but I have heard that most of them are on the books because of their other talents.
+++++The local chicken franchise is run by a man named Michael Millicent. He has served time in Channings Wood for procurement, molestation and other similarly unpleasant offences. Word has it that, back when he still used to trick out girls, he worked them so hard a couple of them developed gastrointestinal disorders and musculoskeletal problems. He sent them out to work anyway. One of them was his fucking niece.
+++++His business model changed after his jolt in the big house, and if I wanted to find a missing rent boy in this town I would roust him first, and roust him hardest.
+++++Millicent emerges from the kitchen and glares at me across the counter. He has a face like a character actor and hair like sweat-matted pubes. Even from across the room I can tell that his breath is rancid with brandy.
+++++“What the fuck do you want, Rey?”
+++++“It’s nice to see you too, Michael… Burke Pangbourne – is he one of your boys?”
+++++The low level of chicken-chatter behind the counter dissipates.
+++++“Sorry – never heard of him.”
+++++I know he is lying because his lips are moving.
+++++I grab a handful of his greasy chest hair and slam my forehead into his nose. He crumples like a takeaway carton – blood spraying across the grease-specked chrome counter.
+++++I look down at him. His eyes gleam like pools of raw sewage.
+++++I drag him to his feet by his hair. It feels disgusting.
+++++In the plate glass window I see reflected movement behind me. I yank Millicent round sharply and come face to face with one of his chickenheads, trembling and clutching a battered-looking pearl-handled revolver.
+++++“Put the piece down, kid – before you hurt someone.”
+++++He looks at Millicent, pleadingly, and I feel the pimp shrug slightly. I slam his face towards the gun and it clatters to the floor. Millicent lurches towards it – tearing a sweaty clump of hair out of his scalp in the process.
+++++He scrambles across the floor and fumbles for the gun. I stamp on his hands twice and leave him howling like a sick dog.
+++++I crouch down and retrieve the piece myself, dropping it into my jacket pocket.
+++++“Ready to try again, motherfucker?”
+++++“Alright, alright… He’s in the fucking Excelsior Hotel. He’s with a client. A high-roller called Dominguez. Knowing that rich bastard, they will be in the honeymoon suite.”
+++++“That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
+++++He wipes his sleeve across his nose, smearing blood all over his face. Then he coughs up a streak of crimson phlegm on the floor.
+++++“If you cost me money, Rey, I will find you and I will hurt you.”
+++++I chuckle.
+++++“Not if I hurt you first.”
+++++I put my hand on the gun and back away from him slowly, keeping my eyes on Millicent’s boys. Now the adrenaline is fading, I feel as nervous as they look.
+++++I edge outside. The midday sun feels hot against my neck. I glance up at the swollen glare: it is the colour of a fake £1 coin.


I have fond memories of the Excelsior Hotel. My ex-wife and I spent our wedding night there. Not in the honeymoon suite, mind – in one of the cheaper, less appealing rooms. One of the ones overlooking the railway line and the litter-strewn hedge-rows.
+++++I take a seat in the lobby and pretend to flick through a week-old Herald Express I find on the coffee table. The hotel detective is an elderly man in an electric blue sports jacket and too-short slacks. He stands out like a wart on a freshly shaved pussy. From across the room I can see the bulge of his ankle holster. I can think of a number of hotels in this town that would be improved by a tooled-up hotel dick, but this place never struck me as one of them.
+++++Millicent’s pearl-handled revolver feels uncomfortable in my jacket pocket. I hope I don’t need it. Nobody needs to get shot today. If I fuck this up, the next hotel I set foot inside will almost certainly have bars on the fucking windows.
+++++I drift across the lobby, lurking behind the fake palm trees every time the rent-a-cop casts his rheumy eyes over the room. I take the service staircase rather than the lift.
+++++I knock on the door.
+++++“Room service.”
+++++The door opens a crack. It’s Burke Pangbourne. He has a blonde buzzcut. He is naked apart from his heart-shaped sunglasses. He looks happy.
+++++I slam my shoulder into the wood, sending him sprawling across the carpet.
+++++Dominguez is morbidly obese. He takes up most of the king-size bed. His has a doughy body and a pockmarked face. He is a wholly unappealing physical specimen. He doesn’t move an inch, and it crosses my mind that he is genuinely incapacitated.
+++++Burke slowly climbs to his feet, making no effort to cover his big dick.
+++++“Get dressed, kid. It’s time to go home. The old man has summoned you.”
+++++“Fuck him – and fuck you.”
+++++Out of the corner of my eye I see Dominguez pull a piece. It’s a tiny gun – the kind a hooker keeps in her handbag. He wedges his fat finger inside the trigger guard and squeezes. The bullet cracks the plaster above the door frame.
+++++Burke bolts past me – still stark naked – and heads towards the service exit at the end of the corridor. I fucking hate running.
+++++I glare at the fat man one more time and then take off after Burke.
+++++I take the service steps two at a time, and feel my lungs burn as I try to catch up with him.


The beach looks faded from the hotel rooftop. The town centre looks ugly and complicated.
+++++Burke is standing next to one of the industrial air vents, trembling.
+++++I take a step towards him. He doesn’t move an inch. I shuffle forward again.
+++++“Burke – it’s your mother – she’s dying. She needs your help. She needs your… blood.”
+++++He laughs bitterly.
+++++“She sure needs someone’s fucking help.”
+++++He steps towards the edge of the roof.
+++++“Listen, Burke. Let’s go back inside. Talk this through.”
+++++“Ted has had my mouth, he has had my arse. Now he wants my fucking blood? Fuck him.”
+++++Burke says something else, but his words are carried away by the summer breeze. He starts to chuckle as he steps forward – off the edge of the hotel roof.
+++++His laughter is the last thing I hear.
+++++Until the screaming starts.


I twist the screwdriver out of his neck, and it makes a sound like a sloppy kiss. To his credit, he doesn’t even flinch.
+++++The tang of hot blood fills my nostrils. The windows of the brothel have been nailed shut, and there is nowhere for the blood-stink to escape. I look for the tell-tale arterial spurt, but it never materialises.
+++++I jab the hot metal into his gut instead, and he smiles queasily – before dropping to his knees.
+++++Jesus. What a fucking mess.


When I first met my ex-wife Alouette, she was turning tricks to support her crippled brother. Her drugged eyes looked like clumsy smudges, and she had track marks on the backs of her legs. At that point in time, she was the prettiest hooker I had ever seen.
+++++It was love at first sight.


When Alouette walked into the Dirty Lemon yesterday morning it was the first time I had set eyes on her in over a year. By this point, we had been divorced far longer than we were ever married. I took comfort in that fact – it made me feel like I had outrun my past. I haven’t outrun anything since I was ten, so it was especially satisfying. Fuck, last month I got outrun by a fat cop. He beat me so hard I shat blood in the holding cell.
+++++It was a hot day, and the pub’s fire exit had been propped open with a traffic cone. The wheelchair ramp had been freshly painted, and the fumes drifted into the bar.
+++++Alouette craned her neck as she glanced around the pub. She didn’t have to look too hard admittedly – the bar was quieter than the county morgue on a bank holiday.
+++++I was happy to see her – in spite of myself. She was wearing sprayed-on jeans, an inside-out T-shirt and grubby tennis shoes. She looked clean and healthy.
+++++She slipped into the chair opposite me.
+++++“I need a favour.”
+++++No small-talk. I appreciated that. There had been a lot of water under the bridge. A lot of other stuff too.
+++++She smiled at me.
+++++As a general rule, I don’t even do favours for my few remaining blood relatives, let alone my ex-spouses.
+++++Her eyes creased as she struggled to maintain the smile. I remembered it well – small crooked teeth and a vague hint of desperation.
+++++I didn’t return her smile. Lately I have had very little to smile about.


Alouette told me that her step-sister, Aileen, was part of a teen-hooker ring, operating out of a semi-detached house in Foxhole. I had heard worse stories coming out of Foxhole over the years, but this one seemed pretty fucking raw. The pimp – a guy named Nelson Felton – was keeping the girls strung out on ketamine, and selling them like animals to the highest bidder. Some of the prices I had heard mentioned were distressingly low.
+++++Nelson and I go way back. I remember him as a teenager – he was skinnier than a junkie’s dog. He used to do razor attacks for Remy Cornish, back when that was still a viable career option. Remy always paid by the stitch, and it ended up being one of the best part-time jobs in town.
+++++Nelson recently served 19 months in Channings Wood for breaking a man’s ribs with a claw hammer. The experience had a profound impact on him, by all accounts. I have never spent enough time in prison to succumb to the unique delights of ‘penitentiary pussy’, but I’ve met a few surprising converts over the years. None more so than Nelson. Rumour has it that he is now shacked-up with his ex-cellmate. I have heard that they make a lovely couple.


Alouette’s life story is long and depressing – like Foxhole Road. The brief chapter involving me always seemed like something of a high-point, but maybe I’m biased?
+++++For what it’s worth, Foxhole Road also has its own unique charms. You just have to look really fucking hard to find them.
+++++I pop the lock of Nelson’s semi-detached house with my screwdriver and sneak into the hallway. Inside, it resembles any other small town brothel. I can hear sex noises emanating from the lounge. Someone sounds like they are having fun – the other person, not so much. I slide the screwdriver into my back pocket and kick open the door.
+++++“What the fuck?”
+++++I recognise the boyfriend. His name is David Cummings. He is bony and rat-faced, and has a high-tar cigarette tucked behind his left ear. He lunges at me across the bed, dick still rock-hard. I slam an open palm into his chin and his head judders backwards with a queasy crack.
+++++Nelson disentangles himself from the sweaty bedsheets. He has waxy yellow skin and a badly inked neck tattoo. He looks positively withered. Prison food was evidently bad for his health.
+++++“Aw man, was that really necessary?”
+++++I remove the crumpled photo of Aileen from my jacket pocket.
+++++“I don’t want any trouble – I just want this girl.”
+++++He laughs uproariously.
+++++“Take my word for it – girls are overrated.”
+++++I glare at him, dead-eyed, and he matches me with a well-honed prison yard stare.
+++++A beat passes, and then I feel a tiny prick as the photo slips from my hand. I try to turn around, and realise there is a fucking needle stuck in my neck.
+++++It’s Aileen, jailbait smirk stitched across her face.
+++++I jerk away from her, trying to swat the needle away, but my arm flails helplessly.
+++++Aileen stands over me, grinning. She is wearing a soiled-looking school uniform.
+++++Nelson puts a sickly arm around her.
+++++“Just what the fucking doctor ordered.”


+++++It could have been minutes, it could have been hours.
+++++I’m slumped on a worn recliner, sifting through the ulcerated visions inside my skull. The radiator next to me oozes a warm, reeking heat, and I’m sweating like a fat man at a gang-bang – mouth dry like sandpaper.
+++++Nelson is wearing a cheap-looking kimono. I’ve seen similar items being sold from wire hangers on Torbay Road. They usually cost less than a rock of crack, but more than a Harbourside handjob. He offers me a feint, sardonic smile. When he smiles the sores around his mouth crack and ooze.
+++++“David, our friend looks a little bit woozy. Would you escort him to the bedroom?”
+++++David Cummings grins at me through yellow teeth and my guts tighten.
+++++Then I remember my fucking screwdriver…

Idle Hands

David Battucci’s face is grey like cigarette ash. He has bloodshot eyes and squashed, lipless features. I haven’t seen him since the gangrene took his left leg, and the amputation has aged him badly. His cheap-looking prosthetic sits on the banquette next to him, like some kind of obscure threat.
+++++We shake hands. He has the swollen knuckles of a fighter, but I’ve never seen him throw a punch. He always preferred hatchets and handguns. Before he retired he was known as ‘Dave the Butcher’. He cracked heads and snapped bones for the Andretti family, occasionally dabbled in wet-work – if the price was right. One day he pieced off a hundred quid hit in Foxhole to a junkie, because he thought the job was beneath him. Later that night the same junkie tried to cut David’s throat.
+++++They never found his body.
+++++I’m trying to make out the ragged scar across his fleshy neck when he breaks the silence.
+++++“I need you to find the strongbox for me, Mr Rey. I promised Myra-Lee before she died. I don’t like breaking promises…”
+++++He gestures at his missing leg.
+++++“… butfucking look at me now.”


The evening sky over the Ocean Spray Caravan Park is the colour of dried blood. My ex-wife Alouette used to live in one of these static caravans. Maybe she still does. I consider banging on a few doors, but I’m not quite drunk enough. I leave the park the same way I came in: through the ragged gap in thecyclone fence.


14 hours later.
Slattery’s Meat Market.
+++++Slattery has a neck like a wrestler and a penchant for bottom-shelf spirits. He started out showing pornographic movies in pub cellars, and only invested in the Meat Market when its Cantonese owners were busted for people trafficking. It used to be a full-blown sex club, but since Slattery took over he seems to have reinvented it as strip club.
+++++“Busy, Mr Rey?”
+++++I shrug.
+++++“You know how it is in this town: the devil always finds work for idle hands.”
+++++Slattery grins awkwardly, inspecting his own bruised, calloused knuckles. Two fingers on his right hand are nothing more than raw-looking stumps. I think they got chewed up by a meat-grinder – back in another lifetime – but I might be thinking of someone else.
+++++A fat girl crawls across the stage on all fours, naked apart from her nipple tassels. It’s only midday.
+++++The Meat Market is clearly making an aggressive push to attract the lunchtime trade.
+++++“So, the strongbox…?”
+++++Slattery smiles, showing me his big teeth again.
+++++“Sure. I remember the strongbox…”
+++++According to Dave the Butcher, Myra-Lee briefly worked as a hostess for the Cantonese, between stints at the tanning salon. She told him that the owners made their employees pose for naked photographs to safeguard against future blackmail attempts. They kept the pictures in the strongbox.
+++++“…I couldn’t open it, so I sold it along with the rest of the scrap metal when I was refitting the club.”
+++++I glance around the club. Some refit. The walls have been painted the colour of sicked-up stomach lining, and the furniture looks like it has been salvaged from a skip.
+++++“Thanks… I think.”
+++++The fat girl – still on all fours – disappears back behind the smoke-coloured curtain as I finish my drink.
+++++Slattery is still grinning to himself as I leave the building.


An hour later.
Paignton Yards.
+++++The scrap trade is booming in Paignton, but every industry has its bottom feeders.
+++++Sammy Lau smiles at me through clenched yellow teeth. He has a pockmarked face, and I can see folds of doughy flesh beneath his sweaty salmon-pink shirt.
+++++I once heard a rumour that he liked to pay elderly prostitutes to suffocate him with polythene sheeting.Unfortunately, it is probably one of the nicest things that I have ever heard about him.
+++++The portakabinthat doubles as his office is hotter than a sauna. He fans himself with a week-old Herald Express.
+++++“Fucking heater… fucking broken.”
+++++Then he sprays me with phlegmy laughter, and then wipes his lips on the back of his fat wrist.
+++++“I’m looking for a strongbox. It used to belong to a friend of mine.”
+++++He shakes his head like a stroppy toddler.
+++++“I think you will find it used to belong to Slattery – and he doesn’t have any fucking friends – so I know you’re lying.”
+++++He laughs again, more unpleasantly this time, and then gestures over his shoulder.
+++++“Now it belongs to me.”
+++++“I need that strongbox, Sammy.”
+++++I reach into my jacket pocket for the cash that Dave the Butcher gave me, but Lau lunges at me with a bone-handled pocket knife. The knife gouges a chunk of foam out of the swivel chair that I was just sitting in.
+++++As we wrestle on the portakabin floor I feel a couple of ribs crack under his bulky weight.
+++++I try to kick his blade away, but he swipes at me, leaving a wicked gash across my left thigh. The wound makes me feel woozy, and I slam his head into the metal edge of the strongbox.
+++++The second time I do it I think I hear his brain-stem crunch.
+++++I drag the strongbox past his limp body as DNA leaks from his ear and pools on the grotty linoleum.


Outside, the sky looks stained. Toxic smoke billows out from the chimney at Pete Cooper’s Glue Factory. Above the industrial estate, the sun throbs like the knife-wound in my leg.
+++++I limp across the gravel forecourt towards the main road, dragging the strongbox behind me.
+++++It’s a hot day, and I have a long way to go.


Entry 8 – Knuckle Sandwich

Listen instead!
Listen instead!

The first punch breaks my nose. The second splits my lip.
+++++I’ve only won six of the fourteen bareknuckle fights I’ve participated in. I’m fairly sure that tonight won’t be number seven…


I wake up with the taste of blood in my mouth and a stranger standing next to my bed. That’s a new one on me. I’ve woken up with a few strangers in my bed over the years, but no one as ugly as this motherfucker. He has a bloated face and eyes the colour of partially-dried blood. He looks fat enough to blot out the sun.
+++++I consider reaching for my pig-knife, but think better of it, and reach for the half-bottle of vodka instead. It burns in my busted mouth and tingles against my loose teeth.
+++++“Jesus, pal – is that your blood?”
+++++I look down at my bedsheets – they are splattered with blood. So are my arms and my chest.
+++++“You should have seen the other guy…”
+++++“Seen the other guy? I helped to scrape him off the fucking mat with a shovel. Talk about a comeback. I almost phoned you an ambulance after that first round.”
+++++I laugh. Yeah, that was some fight.
+++++I lean back against the headboard and allow myself another celebratory drink. The hoodlum rips the bottle out of my hands. He must be a fighter too. His knuckles look smashed raw.
+++++“Mr Gladwell would like a word with you. He lost a lot of money after your little stunt.”
+++++“Stunt? That was a fair fight!”
+++++“No one expected you to beat him. Least of all Mr Gladwell.”
+++++He passes me a dirty shirt.
+++++“Time to go.”
+++++“Can I at least have a shower first?”
+++++He scoffs.
+++++“No chance.”
+++++Bastard. Look on his face – you would have thought that I’d asked for a fucking hand-job…


Mr Gladwell is holding court in the Oldenburg. Despite his wealth he still considers himself a man of the people. His face looks pale and withered, and his slicked back hair is a queasy mix of yellow and grey.
+++++“Good morning, Mr Rey. How’s the head?”
+++++“It’s been better, Gladwell. Nothing a few drinks won’t cure. I take it you didn’t ask me here to inquire after my health?”
+++++He chuckles and blows smoke at the gash above my eyebrow. I wince.
+++++“True. I’ll cut to the chase. My grandson has been taken. I want you to get him back.”
+++++I try to do the maths. Gladwell’s wife is pure jailbait.She can’t possibly be a grandmother.
+++++“I have been married a great many times, Mr Rey.”
+++++I nod. Good for you. I’ve been married once. Never again.
+++++“His father has him.”
+++++“What’s wrong with that?”
+++++“Last month he put my daughter in a coma. He’s scum.”
+++++Gladwell slides me a photograph.
+++++I recognise him. Harlow. An ex-fighter. A long time ago he was tipped to be Paignton’s next big thing. Now he deals steroids and other pharmaceuticals to local no-hopers. He was sitting in the front row last night, sneering. The first time I got knocked off my feet he spat at me. Motherfucker.
+++++He hands me a second photo.
+++++“The boy’s name is Bailey. He will be four years old next week.”
+++++“How much are you paying?”
+++++“I’m offering to forget about your little indiscretion last night. You don’t look like you have the means to make good the £11,000 I lost.”
+++++“Hey, I never agreed to throw that fight!”
+++++He shrugs.
+++++“Maybe you would prefer to work off the debt in my brother’s brothel instead?”
+++++Gladwell laughs, queasily – for longer than he needs to.
+++++“Ok, I’ll fucking do it.”
+++++“It will be a walk in the park for a man of your talents, Mr Rey.”
+++++He smiles, but it isn’t particularly reassuring. The fat man grabs me by the elbow and hoists me out of my chair.
+++++He escorts me outside, chuckling to himself.
+++++“I’m impressed – I half expected you to take him up on the brothel gig. In Channings Wood, I knew plenty of sissies like you. They wore dresses and sucked cocks.”
+++++I throw a punch but he catches my fist effortlessly.
+++++He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t need to. He just laughs in my face.


+++++I’m at the address Gladwell gave me. He told me that Harlowlives in a flat belonging to his elderly parents.
+++++I run my finger indiscriminately down the row of buzzers. When the first person answers I mutter something about a pizza delivery. The door clicks open and I step inside.
+++++I make my way up to the second floor and bang on the cheap plywood door. It creaks open. An old man scratches at his sweat-stained vest. His ragged torso looks like something you would find in a meat-locker – dangling from a hook, or maybe getting shovelled into a bin-bag. I knock him out with one punch.
+++++I kick down the first door I see. Harlow is inside, jogging bottoms around his ankles, watching Cantonese porn. I grab him by his greasy grey hair and drag him to his feet. I rip three hard rights into his mouth. He looks confused, doesn’t seem to recognise me. I hit him again and blood sprays across the curtain.
+++++The kid is in a piss-stained cot in an adjacent room. I don’t know much about children, but I know a four year-old shouldn’t be sleeping in a fucking cot.


+++++I walk into the glare of full-beam headlights. Raindrops dance in front of the yellow glow as the wind howls across the forecourt. The fat man squeezes out of the car. He is wearing a nylon bomber jacket with the name of a local undertaker businessemblazoned across the back. He opens the rear door.
+++++Gladwell is grinning, holding a fucking balloon.
+++++I place the sobbing boy inside the car. Gladwell doesn’t look at me, doesn’t say a word.
+++++I stare atthe car’s taillights as it splashes through the waterlogged Foxholegutters.
+++++“Happy birthday, kid.”

Flesh and Bone

Listen instead!
Listen instead!

The evening sun glows a dark shade of red as it hovers above the murky-looking shoreline. From where I’m sitting it looks like a festering wound.


It is July. Paignton has been stewing under a brutal layer of heat and grit for the last three weeks. During that time four local rent boys have been abducted and eviscerated by a man known only as the Bone Daddy.
+++++I’ve seen two of the crime scene photos, and they seem to have less in common with murder and more in common with modern abattoir methods. He had stripped the flesh off the bodies, and left the bones to rot in car parks and condemned factories. The police never found the flesh, nor the organs. The cops think that the boys were still alive when the Bone Daddy went to work on them. Fuck – I heard that one of them was still breathing when the fucking ambulance arrived.
+++++We are sitting outside the Burning Wheel, at one of the sea-salt ruined picnic tables. Jerry Connelly passes me a copy of today’s Herald Express.
+++++The lurid headline screams ‘COME TO DADDY’.
+++++Subtle – like a brick in the teeth.
+++++“He has taken another one, Joe. Number five.”
+++++I try to focus on the newsprint, but the words seem to slide right off the page.
+++++Jerry passes me the bottle he has been slurping from, and I take a hit off the scummy yellow liqueur. I grimace as it curdles in my throat.
+++++“The doctor says I’ve got a fucked-up liver to go with my blacked-out lungs. This is about as much as I can manage these days.”
+++++He hands me a photograph.
+++++“Henry Clerval. 19 years-old. Missing since Friday night. Last seen outside the North Atlantic Video Lounge.”
+++++The boy has thick black hair and smoke-coloured eyes.
+++++“Help me nail this Bone Daddy freak, Joe. Put him out of circulation for good.”
+++++I nod.
+++++Jerry’s not a cop. Not anymore. He quit after getting stabbed in the neck at a drug-den in Foxhole. He didn’t take to retirement, and now he works as a private investigator. Just like me, but with a better moral code. He’s also stubborn – like a fucking bloodstain.


Every job feels like it could be my last, but this one just might be.
+++++I’m still in the Burning Wheel when Jerry catches up with me. He is red-faced and wheezing. His orange satin shirt is splattered in fresh blood. He told me that he had rousted an organ trafficker called Krempe near Paignton harbour. He found four Chinese girls – fresh off the boat – manacled to a trough in the back room of a derelict gift shop.
+++++After a little bit of gentle persuasion from Jerry’s rat-tail sap, Krempe started babbling like a schizoid. He confirmed that there was a rogue surgeon in town, offering to sell cheap human body parts on Winner Street. He told Jerry that this guy turned up in the Oldenburg one lunchtime, with a carrier bag full of warm organs. Sour blood was seeping through the plastic and stained the carpet. Witnesses said that he had a badly lacerated face and a European accent. He gave a couple of local juiceheads his phone number and told them to ask for Viktor.


+++++We are sat outside the Chadwell Centre in Jerry’s bile-coloured hatchback, sipping from his bottle of liqueur. The whites of his eyes have turned red.
+++++It used to be an asylum for the blind, but was closed down in 2004, shortly after a man named Walton ran amok with a cut-throat razor.
+++++A skinny, shirtless guy with track-marks down both arms lurches towards the hatchback and starts banging frantically on the window. He looks like a fucking zombie. Jerry presses his Remington pump-action twelve-gauge up against the window, and the junkie melts into the gloom.
+++++“Don’t mind Mr Kirwan. He’s just working through a few personal problems. He won’t get in our way.”
+++++I’m impressed. Jerry has an encyclopaedic knowledge of local low-lives. He considers it one of his finest features, and I don’t disagree.
+++++Jerry passes me the bottle. The liqueur – combined with the thought of what I might see inside – makes me feel sick.
+++++“Are you ready?”
+++++I nod.


The building stinks like a butcher’s bin-bag. It smells so bad that I want to hold my breath. The stairs feel soggy under my boots. Jerry is clutching the twelve-gauge in his clammy hands. He is muttering obscenities to himself. I feel something dangerously close to fear in my belly.


At the back of the room the Bone Daddy looks small and unassuming. He doesn’t look like much of a threat.
+++++His victim is spread-eagled on a slab. The boy’s small intestine is coiled around his wrist, dripping blood. Earlier Jerry told me that a small intestine can fetch up to £1,500 on the black market, twice as much as a gallbladder and five times more than a spleen. I feel bile rising in my throat.
+++++In the rancid, milky light the boy’s skin looks peeled raw, barely covering the muscle tissue and blood vessels underneath. Human skin is worth £6 an inch to the right buyer, but I doubt that the Bone Daddy has money in mind.
+++++The boy twitches, still alive. His eyeballs shine yellow.
+++++Jerry screams. He screams so hard that no noise comes out.
+++++The Bone Daddy looks up at us and smiles, a small vanilla cigar clamped between his teeth. He has a face like a ruined archive. His grin is so wide it makes him look lipless.
+++++I reach for the pig-knife in my boot.
+++++His smile gets even wider. It makes my blood shrivel.
+++++Jerry racks his shotgun.
+++++“Gentlemen. I have been expecting you.”
+++++The Bone Daddy raises the scalpel to his own throat.
+++++“Learn from my miseries, and do not seek to increase your own.”
+++++He laughs, briefly, and a grotesque silence fills the room.

Used For Glue

Listen instead
Listen instead

The first thing I hear when I regain consciousness is the sloshing of rancid juices. It sounds like death.


Someone yanks the hood off my head. It feels skin-tight, and my left ear almost gets wrenched off in the process. Hoodlums in this town normally use a burlap sack or a bin-bag. These fuckers used a gimp-mask.
+++++My face is sweaty and my teeth feel loose. I blink into the harsh industrial lights.
+++++“Do you like your job, Mr Rey?”
+++++I shrug. It has its moments. This doesn’t seem to be one of them.
+++++“When I was a child I had a job not far from here. In one of the local abattoirs: scraping plague-fleas from animal carcasses. The pay was shit, but the work was satisfying. Job satisfaction is incredibly important to me.”
+++++His face is ugly, and his skin looks like cured meat. I vaguely recognise him, but his name escapes me.
+++++“Do you know why horses were used for glue, Mr Rey?”
+++++I stare at him dumbly.
+++++“They have a lot of collagen. In their cartilage … in their tendons … in their ligaments. Fabulous beasts, Mr Rey.”
+++++I stifle a yawn.
+++++“I’m sorry – am I boring you?”
+++++“Hey, it’s your party…”
+++++He nods to a stocky man in dungarees.
+++++“Gareth, please can you teach Mr Rey some manners?”
+++++“Sure thing, Mr Strange.”
+++++Ah, fuck. Herman Strange. His daughter Brandy finished fourth in the Miss Teen Paignton contest a couple of years ago. We were casually acquainted for a brief period.
+++++Gareth Greene I do recognise. Over the years he has bounced me out of some of Paignton’s least appealing night-spots. In the summer, when the carnival comes to town, he earns beer money as a tent-fighter. He’s a tough motherfucker, and when he hits me I think he loosens the jelly around my brain.
+++++“Brandy is missing, Mr Rey.”
+++++“What the fuck does that have to do with me?”
+++++He hits me again – even harder, if that is possible.
+++++“Much to my dismay, you know her tastes, her habits… I want you to find her for me.”
+++++I nod.
+++++“You have 24 hours. If you haven’t located her, I will have Gareth remove one of your fingers.”
+++++I laugh, despite myself.
+++++“You know what, Herman – I normally find that payment is a better incentive.”
+++++He grunts.
+++++“Gareth – please escort Mr Rey off the premises.”
+++++He leads me by the arm like we’re on a date. I glance behind me.
+++++Pete Cooper’s Glue Factory. I should have known. Pete Cooper died before I was born, but his glue factory is almost certain to outlast me.
+++++Gareth offers me his hand.
+++++“Sorry, pal. We weren’t trying to hurt you – just scare you.”
+++++I grab his hand and yank his wrist down sharply, bringing my knee up into his face at the same time. His nose cracks on impact, and he lies moaning on the tarmac.
+++++“Hit me that hard again Gareth, and I will fucking ruin you.”
+++++In the adjoining business unit I can see a posse of stocky geezers stocking freezers. They stop what they are doing and stare at me. I pick up a rusted length of chain that is lying on the blistered tarmac, and wrap it around my fist.
+++++Slowly they start stocking the freezer units again. I walk away and I don’t look back.


The Dirty Lemon is a pub with a dark soul. As a drinking hole it’s a waste of space, but as a source of information it’s invaluable.
+++++I order a double whisky from Spacey Tracey, and it tastes even worse than usual. My throat quickly gets used to the burn – it always does.
+++++Sidney Loomis is a scrawny ex-con type with spit-slicked hair. His beard is the colour of tar, and when he sees me he flashes me a sour little smile. He operates at the lower end of the skin-trade, and his hookers are all as hard as nails. He used to make his girls use two condoms on each client, but I have heard that he has cut down since the recession.
+++++“I’m looking for a girl.”
+++++He offers me a grim chuckle and gestures around the pub.
+++++“This whole town is a big, fucking brothel, why come to me?”
+++++“I appreciate your charming personality.”
+++++He grins.
+++++“Her name is Brandy. Her father is Herman Strange.”
+++++“Is she white?”
+++++I nod.
+++++“Try Edward Yang. I’ve heard that he is diversifying his business model. He moves around a lot, but he was based out of The Swanson, last I heard.”
+++++“Thanks. I owe you one.”
+++++“You’re welcome. Now, how about I get Angelique to wank you off underneath the table? She’s very good.”
+++++She shuffles across the floor sheepishly, and presses her breasts against my shoulders. I smile and shake my head.
+++++“How about a gob-job? She could suck a billiard ball through a hosepipe.”
+++++“Thanks, but I’ve got a job to do.”
+++++“You know, you’re a real hero, Joe. Who knows: maybe one day they will name a fucking street after you.”


+++++The Swanson.
+++++The late afternoon sky is the colour of gravel. I circle around the back of the hotel to Room 237.
+++++Through the greasy window I can see a junkie-looking girl perched on the edge of an easy chair. She’s carrying a shotgun, so I figure her for some kind of chaperone. No one would arm a hooker in this town, except maybe in Foxhole.
+++++A second girl is face down on the double-bed, but I can’t tell whether or not it is Brandy.
+++++I edge around to the front door, only to walk face-first into the pump-action shotgun.
+++++“What the fuck do you want?”
+++++Jesus, she’s ugly – even for a junkie. I relax when I realise that her finger is outside the trigger guard. I grab the barrel and smash the butt into her face. She screeches like a worn-out bone-saw as it makes contact with her nose, and hits the deck. I turn her over. Her face is a bloody, pulpy mess.
+++++Fuck it. I’d rather ruin her nose than lose my own fingers.
+++++I walk into the hotel room, and flip the body over.
+++++It’s Brandy. She’s wearing nothing but lip-gloss. Her eyes are glazed, but they moisten when she sees me.
+++++“Who brought you here, Brandy?”
+++++“My father. He sold me to Edward Yang.”
+++++What the fuck? That deranged motherfucker.
+++++“He just wanted another excuse to hurt you.”


Midnight. Pete Cooper’s Glue Factory.
+++++Herman’s car is parked diagonally across the handicapped parking bay.
+++++The harsh factory lighting seeps out from underneath the corrugated iron door and casts weird shadows across the tarmac.
+++++I dip into my jacket pocket for a hand grenade. It’s my last one. I was saving it for a special occasion, but tonight will do just fine. I pull the pin and roll it into the glue factory.
+++++I smile as I walk away.
+++++I’m not trying to hurt them – just scare them.

Wet Work

Wet-Look is a greasy ex-cop with a sick sense of humour. Ever since they kicked him off the force he has worked as a private investigator, operating out of a shabby office above the North Atlantic Video Lounge. He runs his mouth off whenever he is drunk – which is most days – about the ‘wet work’ he has done since cashing in his pension, but no one really believes him. He weighs at least 27 stone and looks like he has difficulty taking out his own rubbish, never mind taking out another human being.


He offered me the chance to earn £500 by sitting in for him on a new job. He said I won’t necessarily have to get my hands dirty, just provide extra muscle if the job goes boss-eyed. My dreams are an endless parade of dead faces already – what harm can it do?


The target is a retired flesh peddler called Gary Santos. He briefly ran a scam involving HIV positive mail order brides, but it didn’t end well for anyone involved. People say his jolt in Channings Wood mellowed him, but I have my doubts. The last time I saw him he was carrying a stabbed hooker out of the Dirty Lemon. Admittedly he wasn’t the one who stabbed her, but he did stab quite a few people that night. Nowadays he lives with his crippled brother-in-law in Merritt Flats. I’m not sure why someone wants him dead – it is generally safer not to ask – but he has been out of the game for a long time.


I’m in the Oldenburg with Colin Rollins – AKA the Big C – AKA the Cancer Man. He is around 60, serious and unsmiling, with weirdly flat facial features. When he does find something amusing his smirk looks like a badly-stitched wound. He suggested a quiet drink before we did the job, but the whisky hits me hard on an empty stomach, and I can’t shake the queasy feeling, even after switching back to beer. He doesn’t look much like a killer, but then again, the best ones never do.


Winner Street is like a hardened artery, leading to Paignton’s dead heart. We trail down the street wordlessly, towards Totnes Road. The Cancer Man has a heavy-bladed killing knife strapped to his belt, and a shoulder holster under his nylon bomber jacket.


For many years the best hookers in Paignton worked out of Merritt Flats. Hard-working, but not too skinny.  However, most of the residents left two years ago, after an arm-bone was discovered lodged in an external drain. Now the building is full of pockmarked junkies, fleshy mental patients and deranged sex workers. And Gary Santos, of course.


As I walk up the stairs, the stale whisky gives me a sour feeling in my gut. The air in the stairwell feels hot and dense, and the second floor corridor is ripe with the stench of decay. Outside Santos’ flat I notice that there are curtains, but there is no glass in his window. The door is ajar, and there are two blood-smeared suitcases in the hallway. The Cancer Man leads the way, knife drawn, as we edge down the hallway. He grunts when he sees Gary’s body.


He is sitting bolt upright in an armchair. His jaw has been blown halfway off, and flies cluster around his dead, open mouth. His thick hair is slicked back and the blood has dried black against his crisp white shirt. I move across the room and nudge the bathroom door open. There is a body floating face down in the dark brown water of the bathtub. The filthy liquid is the colour of bad dreams – it looks like a mixture of shit and blood. The poor fucker probably lost control of his sphincter muscles after being strangled. The mangled wheelchair next to the toilet tells its own depressing story.


I hear the Cancer Man behind me, breathing hard through his mouth. I catch his eye, and his gaze goes milky. He vomits blood down my jacket.


Outside, in the weak afternoon sunshine, an elderly hooker is sat on a rusted folding chair.
+++++“Another body?”
+++++I nod.
+++++She looks strangely satisfied. Her face is elaborately made-up, but her hair looks like dead grass. She uncrosses her legs, and I notice that she has a small butterfly tattooed on her inner thigh. The match shakes in her painted fingers as she raises it to meet her cigarette.
+++++“Did anyone call for a meat-wagon yet?”
+++++I shake my head.
+++++My jacket is still covered in the Cancer Man’s vomited blood. A varicose veined rent boy emerges from the lobby, and drifts towards us. He is clutching a glue-bag in one hand and has a string of knuckle-sized pearls around his neck. He runs his finger down my jacket sleeve, through the blood spatter, before sucking his finger and purring.
+++++Jesus. The ghouls are having a party.


The Cancer Man stumbles down Totnes Road, gun still drawn. A diarrhoea-coloured estate car pulls up alongside us. I don’t recognise it, and reach for the seven-inch screwdriver in my jacket pocket.
+++++Wet-Look’s enormous face leers out of the car window at us. A prehistoric-looking revolver dangles limply from his wrist.
+++++Colin looks up incredulously, chin still specked with sick. Wet-Look shoots him four times in the chest and he goes slack, dropping to his knees. He looks up at me with pleading eyes – half-formed questions dying in his throat.
+++++Wet-Look flashes me a sickly smile. Behind him I can see a greasy stain on the headrest.
+++++“Get in young man.”
+++++I pause before opening the rusted door. The car smells of cigarette smoke and semen. The footwell is littered with rancid-looking used condoms. I bet this car has seen more cock than Parkside toilets.
+++++Through the windscreen, the sky above Winner Street looks dead.
+++++“I have another job to discuss with you.”
+++++I want to laugh, but I just don’t have the heart.

Christmas Eve Can Kill You

It’s Christmas Eve and the strip joints are full of pouting jailbait.
+++++I’m looking for a 19-year-old runaway called Marisol Lopez, but the trail is colder than her dead father’s body.
+++++Heaven’s Basement is the only strip club in Paignton that still employs pregnant dancers. I doubt she is here, but it’s cold outside, and I have to drink somewhere.


The bar is busy, and as usual it is a hard liquor crowd. Luckily I brought my own. I scan the dancers onstage, but I struggle to focus: too much booze, too little sleep.
+++++I remove the photo of Marisol from my jacket pocket. It has been mangled by my vodka bottle. It is the only photo her mother offered me when she hired me. Legs splayed, back arched. Dressed in nothing but pearls. Frankly, I wouldn’t recognise her if she started sucking my cock.


I’m still studying the photo when a skinny hoodrat with a pissy look in his eyes spills my drink. I eyeball him and he blinks first, melting into crowd. The older man standing behind him has a thin grin stitched across his leathery face. He leans in towards me.
+++++“I’m afraid my friend is a little bit old-fashioned. A little bit Old Testament. He doesn’t like to apologise.”
+++++His suit is the colour of muddy water. He is missing three fingers on his right hand. He looks like the kind of guy who always makes a point of asking whore their real name. I hit him so hard that I get a tooth embedded in my knuckle.
+++++He crawls into the crowd and I sip more bootleg vodka.
+++++I had until noon to find Marisol. Then the money ran out. Her baby was due today, but the chances of finding the pair of them alive are disappearing faster than my booze.
+++++After Marisol’s father died her mother hired me to find her and bring her home. That was a month ago.
+++++As the lunchtime rush starts to subside I disappear to the toilet, and lock the door behind me.  I wipe the greasy mirror with my shirt. The bruises to my torso have faded, but the scar tissue looks raw and agitated. My joints looks inflamed, and my knuckles are misshapen. I’m getting too old for this shit.


Outside the club the cold eats into my bones. The pink glow of dusk fades behind the multi-storey car-park and the low winter sun sinks into the Wetlands.
+++++The freezing cold air makes my ruined lungs ache and I head down to the beach. The sea is a churning grey maelstrom. It reminds me of my past.
+++++I’ve tracked down my fair share of runaways over the last couple of years, but most searches begin and end at Paignton bus station.
+++++Either that, or Harold King’s drinking club, the Blind Pig. Three months ago I beat a man called Farrelly after I caught him trying to lure a 13 year-old into a hatchback. I later found out that he worked for Harold King.
+++++I walk up Torbay Road and buy two claw hammers in the99p shop. I drop them into the pockets of my overcoat and turn up my collar. I try to avoid Winner Street at Christmas time, but this year I’m willing to make an exception.


The woman who opens the door has arms that are shrivelled like a junkie’s tits. I’ve never met her, but I think that it is Harold King’s half-sister, Wendy.
+++++“Club’s closed, darling. Try the Kirkham Social. They let any fucker in.”
+++++She is sloppy with drink and offers me a gummy smile.
+++++“I’m not here for a drink.”
+++++I drop my shoulder into the door and knock her sideways, spilling her Pina Colada.
+++++I finger the rubberised grip of one of the claw hammers in my pocket.
+++++“I’m here to spread a little festive cheer.”


The Blind Pig is a subterranean scum-hole. Today it’s hotter than hell, and twice as busy.
+++++In the back room Harold King offers me a queasy smile.
+++++“Joe Rey. I heard you were dead.”
+++++“You hoped I was dead. Big difference.”
+++++His smile gets even queasier.
+++++He has breath like spoiled milk and a voice like my older sister.
+++++“I’m looking for a girl.”
+++++“I’ve got girls of all shapes and sizes here Mr Rey. Try one. Call it a Christmas treat.”
+++++Harold is a rubbery-looking beast of a man. He’s so fat that when he walks it looks like he is moving in several different directions at once.
+++++He manages two steps towards me before I hit him in the face with one of the hammers.
+++++In the chamber behind his office Marisol is stone-cold. I feel for a pulse, but all I get is dead skin.
+++++Under her robe she is wearing nothing except a rhinestone encrusted G-string.
+++++She has blood on her legs and a tattoo of Jesus on her thigh.


I hear the feint cries of a baby in the next room. It’s tiny: a little boy. He has been lazily wrapped in a blanket and placed on the linoleum floor, but everything is splattered in black, tar-like shit.
+++++The door opens behind me. It’s that slack motherfucker Farrelly. He is carrying a blade, but he looks drunker than I feel.
+++++I reach for my hammers.
+++++This won’t take long.


The cold, empty evening hangs around me like a ghost. The icy air I’m breathing is all that keeps me on my feet.
+++++As I reach Torbay Road a hooker with a Santa hat and a knee brace falls into step beside me. She has bloodshot slits for eyes.
+++++I vaguely recognise her. I forget her name, but they call her ‘the mouth of the south’.
+++++“Fancy a party, big man.”
+++++I pass her my vodka bottle and clutch the baby tighter to my chest.
+++++“Have a drink on me.”
+++++She offers me a curious look.
+++++“Merry fucking Christmas.”