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?”
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!”
“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.”