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?”
“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.
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.