The last one brought a baseball bat; it dropped from his fist as he rounded the alley’s corner. Danny Costigan looked back at him, fists stained with blood that was black in the neon glow. At his feet the lad’s two friends lay moaning and bleeding in the rain-swept gutter. Dance music pumped through the windows of the club and Danny, his shirt torn and eyebrow cut, said, ‘Come on then.’ A hood masked the lad’s face. He paused, then vanished rat-quick into the dark. Danny nodded to himself, then plucked a half smoked cigarette from the ledge of a bricked up window. ‘Not as stupid as youse two,’ he said. One of the men started to crawl away through a dirty puddle. Danny ignored him; they’d been shown how it was in the Jack of Diamond’s Gentlemen’s Club.
Tommo, the other bouncer working, waited by the side-door; he’d ended up in the Borough after some never disclosed trouble that left him with a scar running from the corner of his eye to the edge of his mouth. He laughed. ‘Might have to give that teetotal shite a try; never seen two gadgies go down like that.’
Danny shrugged. ‘Didn’t take much,’ he flicked his cigarette into rain that fell like fire against flashing red neon. ‘Pissed up, weren’t they? Bloody scallies.’ He took the black suit jacket Tommo handed him. His knuckles were tooth-grazed and stinging. ‘Respectable place this.’
There was a girl called Marie on the stage. Red light flooded up from smoked glass sconces in the walls and a haze of cigarette smoke drifted above the heads of two dozen men watching her from small round tables. The girls were doing well, and when they weren’t dancing they circled the tables wearing as little as possible; there were private booths off to one side and a long bar to the other. Danny weaved through a group of men dressed in cheap suits as Marie stripped to a dance track. A cup of tea waited near the telephone. He nodded to Istvan behind the bar, sat down and sipped the drink. He grimaced. ‘Bloody Poundland crap,’ he said, pushing it away.
Tommo stood beside him. ‘So that weren’t the trouble?’
‘I reckon there’s something a little more serious coming.’
‘Karen should tell us.’
Karen ran the Jack o’ Diamond’s for her husband, Terry Mahoney. He’d vanished years before; some said he’d gone to Thailand, some to Northern Cyprus; others said he was under a concrete flyover somewhere; but Karen kept the business going regardless, increasing profits, expanding premises, all for the day Terry came walking back through the door. Danny shrugged and caught sight of his reflection in the mirror opposite, framed by dusty bottles of chivas regal. ‘Istvan, pass us a tissue.’ He moistened it in the tea and dabbed at the dried blood above his eye.
‘You getting slow there, boss?’ The Hungarian asked after watching for a moment.
‘He got lucky.’ Danny glanced back at his reflection: black hair swept back from a dark face; a little more wear and tear than the average man a week away from his big four – oh; otherwise, in good nick. Still alive to see it, he thought, remembering a few of the times when his continued existence had been in doubt. ‘You only need for them to get lucky once, that’s all, and Karen never said owt about trouble,’ he said, turning to Tommo, ‘just that there was something going down and we had to keep bother to a minimum. Keeping a place this respectable takes work.’
They came in at 2 AM, dressed in jeans and bomber jackets, heads shaved, old tattoos faded to a powder blue that was almost beautiful. Three men, one older than the rest by decades, weighed down by gold chains and sovereign rings. The older man was short, not much over five feet; grey stubble covered his scalp and he had a spider’s web tattooed across his throat; Danny recognised him straight away. ‘Bri Steele,’ he said to Tommo. ‘Bloody hell.’
‘Grangetown lot; used to cut blokes up at Middlesbrough games in the 80’s, did some time and now he’s got his fucking fingers in all sorts: pills, porn, cigarette running; small time stuff, but not the sort you’d bring home to meet your Gran.’ Danny glanced up at Tommo. ‘Let’s keep our heads down.’
Karen Mahoney came through the door leading to the office stairs.
She was dressed, as always, entirely in black. Her greying blonde hair was thick with hairspray and when she kissed Bri’s stubbly cheek she left a trace of red lipstick. ‘Brian, my love,’ Danny heard her say; ‘I wish the auld man was here to see you.’ He missed the reply and the group were quickly led away to the side-room. Bri looked at him over his shoulder and Danny swore he caught the old man smiling. A pair of girls followed, carrying trays of drinks. Danny watched them go, then turned away.
Something turned in the hollow of his heart; something cold and wary and wicked.
A few hours later and the club was emptying; the dancers at that time of the morning weren’t the best, and Danny told them to give it up after a while. They were going home when she came into the club. Danny had put a handful of Sinatra songs on the jukebox and was sitting with his fifth cup of tea, staring into the smoke from a cigarette. His knuckles had scabbed over, but were still sore and he had an ache in his ribs where one of the lads had landed a wild right hook. Tommo was letting the girls out, saying his farewells and kissing the prettiest goodnight. Danny watched with a lazy smile and turned his face away, remembering when he’d have done the same, before something was killed out of him. He felt a hand on his shoulder and caught the smoke-dappled scent of a perfume that hadn’t trapped his heart in years. Then she said his name and he turned, tired suddenly and saw those wide green eyes and thick red hair brushed to the side of a heart-shaped face. Her eyes were smoky with blue mascara and she smiled her crooked old smile and he felt his stomach lurch as though he was on an aeroplane dropping from the air. ‘Faye,’ he said.
‘I thought you’d have more sense than to stay,’ she muttered, sitting at the bar beside him. She wore a blue top that sparkled beneath the lights of the bar. ‘Got a drink for an old friend?’
‘Istvan,’ he said, his mouth dry; ‘gin and tonic.’ He glanced at his eyes in the mirror. ‘And a scotch.’
‘Large as all outdoors, mate.’
The barman raised his eyebrows. ‘Okay, boss.’
Danny lifted his glass; the thumping gold light of the room shone through the liquid. He felt her emerald eyes turn on him as Sinatra sang through the speaker. Danny had walked out of H.M.P Durham a month before, five years after walking in, and hadn’t so much as sniffed a bar-rag in all that time. ‘To old friends,’ he said softly.
‘To the wee small hours,’ she replied, echoing the song.
They drank, and then he said. ‘So what are you doing here?’
‘I’m with Gary,’ she said, looking away, ‘Gary Steele.’
‘I saw the lads,’ Danny emptied the glass and signalled for another. ‘Don’t look bad. You weren’t gonna wait forever.’ He nodded to the large rose tattooed on her shoulder. ‘Looks better than my auld name, anyways.’ She glanced away as he drank. Alcohol buzzed behind his eyes and he rubbed them sore as she started to speak.
‘They’re doing something for Karen; big money.’ She sighed. ‘I thought you’d vanish when you came out.’
‘Where was I going to go?’
‘Anywhere but here; aren’t you frightened?’
‘Not like you.’
‘I don’t worry about nothing; I’ve got Gary watching out for me.’
She said, ‘So, how’s life?’
‘Over a long time back,’ he said, ‘what you’re seeing her are the credits going up after the film’s done with. This is the afterlife, love.’
‘I won’t let you ruin everything.’
‘Won’t you?’ He looked over his shoulder at the empty room. ‘Sometimes I’m sorry it was only the gun they got me for.’
‘He was going to kill us.’
‘You don’t believe me?’
‘I’ve had a lot of time to think about it.’
She shook her head. ‘You know what Terry was like,’ She whispered, close to his ear, ‘an ‘ard man, the kind that never lets things go.’
‘Well,’ Danny said, ‘he wasn’t so hard at the end.’
‘And you will be, I suppose?’
‘Only ever get one chance to find out.’
‘You’ve been fighting,’ she said. The drink stood untouched before her. She studied his hands, his clothes, the cut on his face; she ate him with her eyes.
‘It’s what I’m paid to do.’
‘You’re getting on; leave it to lads like Gary. What did they do to you inside?’
‘I’m tired,’ he said quietly, rubbing his eyes again, ‘sick and tired. I should never have let you talk me into it. You flash your eyes and I lay my whole life in front of you. I loved you, sick and long and hard. I still love you, almost as much as I hate you and that’s the bloody god’s honest.’ He raised his glass. ‘Cheers, darlin’.’
She looked at him for a long time. Lights went off in the club, leaving them alone in the glow from the bar. ‘The past is the past,’ she said, ‘let it go.’
‘That’s shit,’ he snapped. ‘The past is never in the past, not here, not with me and you; not ever. We’re going hand in hand to Hell.’ He finished his drink. ‘Count on it.’
He stood and she watched him weave between obscure tables crabbed with litter and half empty glasses as Sinatra finished up on the jukebox and the hall, where she danced when little more than a child, fell into a darkness as complete and as peaceful as death. Then she turned away.
Danny stumbled along the rain wet wall outside. It was the end of November and cold stars glittered between fast moving clouds lit by a full moon. He stopped for a piss at the end of the alley, crossed Gristhorpe road, now dead and still and headed for the footpath leading to the estate. His heart beat against his ribs like something knocking to be let out and the taste of the whisky was sour at the root of his tongue. He was sorry for the drink, regretted letting it strike hard at his sense, but hadn’t she always done that? Knocked away the scaffold holding up his world and dropped him down with the dogs? A phrase shone over his mind….without are dogs and murderers…he didn’t know where he’d heard that. He’d been a hard bloke, yeah, they all were, but he’d never killed a man, not until that summer night, not until she’d goaded and chided and pushed him out of the door with the gun she’d found and paid for. She was good all right. She was very good.
He was in the underpass, bumping into the slick-tiled wall marred by graffiti and the burn marks of cigarettes. The tear in his shirt ripped a little wider; he swore under his breath and tried to examine the savaged cloth in the yellow light. When he looked up again, the men were there, three of them, hoods pulled low over their faces. ‘So,’ he said. ‘Thought you’d have another go?’
They moved towards him, slowly. One carried a claw hammer; another held an axe handle that was stained and dented. He tested the weight of it, slashing it downwards with a vicious, well practised swing. The third man, shorter than the others, idly whistled an old country song. They weren’t in a hurry.
Danny glanced down at his empty hands, swore, then raced back the way he came. The sound of charging feet exploded in the small tunnel and he ran with a speed and agility he thought had deserted him. He rounded the corner, out into the night.
A car squealed to a halt on a black road and Danny pushed his way over its bonnet as the driver swore out of the window. He ran into Pursglove park. The gravel path crunched like breaking ice as he turned on the spot, looking for a place to hide. ‘Idiot,’ he said. His breath was a blue cloud in the starlight. ‘Fucking idiot.’ There was yelling behind him and he ran, blindly, aware of feet closing behind him.
He tripped, and the man carrying the axe handle, who had been a few steps behind, stumbled over Danny’s legs and fell, dropping the weapon. Danny coughed, then grabbed the handle and hoisted it above his head. The man said, ‘No, no, no.’ Danny smashed his jaw with the handle, knocking teeth and blood across frosty stones with the twig snap of broken bone. He hit him again, harder, smashing his nose, splitting it wide as the other two men approached, then raised the handle and pointed it at them. ‘Come on then, you bastards; I’ll fuckin’ murder you. Come on then!’ He screamed the words, dizzy, elated, his blood poisoned by violence. The pulse beat so hard at his throat it was difficult to breathe and he could smell blood pouring across the path at his feet. The men stepped away, hands raised, without a word. Danny walked backwards, little by little, the bloodied axe handle pointing at the men. He reached the iron gates and stepped into the darkness of a car park close to the river.
The breath ripped through his ragged throat and he trembled as he turned and walked to the water.
‘Danny?’ At first he thought he’d imagined her voice, the low purr he’d heard every time he dreamed. He turned and she stood close by, arms crossed, leaning against the bonnet of a car, looking up at the blue stars with idle curiosity. He smiled, his first and expected reaction. The cut over his eye had opened again and he limped towards her. ‘Faye,’ he said, ‘you’ve got to get the fuck away from here, love, it’s not safe.’ He glanced down at the handle, then let it drop to the ground, embarrassed of it suddenly, as though she’d caught him with something shameful. The light of the town coming from the river behind, reflected in her wide green eyes and he felt the cold of the night for the first time; a reptilian crawl across the back of his neck. Her eyes were large and wet and she nodded.
Her hair, red as a snake’s tongue, flickered in the breeze. ‘Look into my eyes, Danny,’ she whispered.
He frowned, leaned forward, wanting to kiss her again, wanting to feel the warm pool of her gaze, the softness of her hair on a pillow and the heat of her in the night. Wanting to know it wasn’t all a lie; that there was such a thing as love and it could last forever; that it was worth killing for, dying for; worth half a decade behind stone walls. That he hadn’t been wrong; that she was the meaning and summation of all that misery and blood.
At first he thought he’d been punched in the back. He gasped, winded and fell to his knees. Then he felt the warmth rush over his skin and when the hit came again he felt it, the knife, and it was too late to scream.
It felt worse than he could ever have imagined and he fell to his side. Blood like liquid steel forced itself up his throat and he looked at her as he fell to the side. Gary Steele stood over him, a butcher’s knife in his fist. ‘That’s for Terry,’ he said, his voice a little too high and scared. Danny gasped. The pain was fading now, everything was fading; his legs kicked in the grit and faded cigarette butts and it felt as though he was sinking in mud. ‘F…’ He said, looking up at her from the bottom of a dark pit. He saw Gary Steele kiss her lips and then she turned and glanced down at him, her pale face crowned by a halo of stars and streetlights. ‘I…I.’ She smiled and he seemed to be falling and falling.
And then the black took him.
Gareth Spark lives in Whitby, is 33, and writes rural noir based on things he’s seen, done or heard about over the last decade or so. He’s new to short stories, but has previously published a collection of verse “Rain in a dry land” (Mudfog, 2008).