Thankfully, the letter arrived while Chrissie was working. She had taken the car to pick up a load of ironing from an elderly client, and would be driving the load to her friend Gina’s house to get it done. Anthony knew this was an excuse more than anything, to get out of the house, and out in the car on her own, without the kids, without him. He knew she and Gina would drink endless cups of coffee and gossip about their week, and moan about their other halves, while the ironing took a back seat. Anthony did not mind. Just as Chrissie sometimes craved time on her own at the weekend, he craved the time at home, with the kids.
They were both in the kitchen, when Anthony heard the post drop through the door and onto the mat. Jess had lined up her army of Sylvanian figures on the kitchen table and was chatting away, making each figure talk out loud. Liam was working his way through a thick pile of drawing paper, scribbling and doodling ferociously, with his tongue stuck out the side of his mouth. Anthony grabbed the post from the hallway and took it back into the kitchen to open. “Daddy can you be this one?” Jess asked, holding out a little furry brown bear figure. Anthony took it obligingly and tucked it under one arm while he started to open the post.
“Let daddy just open the letters,” he told his daughter, “then I will. Is it a girl or a boy?”
“It’s the dad,” Jess informed him in a tone that let him know this should be obvious, “that’s the daddy bear daddy!”
“Oh okay. One minute baby.”
The letter was nestled between his mobile phone bill and one of those letters enticing you to get out yet another bank loan. He opened it first out of curiosity. The envelope was plain white and addressed him as Mr. Anthony Anderson. He tore it open and pulled out the folded up paper inside. It was thick, good quality paper he thought instantly, and had been folded very precisely and stiffly. Intrigued he flipped it open and found himself staring at a photo of Danny. Immediately, Anthony felt his body grow cold. He swallowed nervously, raised his eyes briefly to check the kids, then lowered them back to the page. Danny’s photo had been photocopied onto the paper, and positioned right in the middle of the page. It was a recent photo, he realised with growing dread. It could have been taken days ago. Above the photo, typed out in black bold letters it read; THIS MAN IS A KILLER. Underneath the photo were the words; STAY AWAY FROM HIM. Anthony held the paper with fingers that started to shake without his permission. He felt like dropping it to the floor and stamping on it, he felt like it was alive and would somehow taint him if he held it much longer. He turned quickly and dropped it onto the sideboard. He stared down at the photo, trying to work out where it had been taken and when.
It looked like it was outside. Anthony peered closer. Danny was staring towards the photographer, but not right at them. It looked like his hair was being blown slightly by the wind. He was not smiling, but his expression looked calm and relaxed. Anthony scrutinised the background, trying to pick out anything that would give him a clue as to where it had been taken. He could see the legs of other people. Was it a busy high street? Somewhere with shoppers passing by?
He looked again at the writing. The message was obviously short and to the point, but did the sender know he already knew Danny had killed a man? Or was the sender simply trying to warn people he had been seen with, in case they did not know? Anthony rubbed his chin, deep in thought. There were two ways you could take this he decided. Someone had it in for Danny, the graffiti was just the start and this was the next step. That much was plain. But was the letter, addressed to him, meant to warn him, assuming he did not know Danny’s past? Or did the sender already know he knew? In that case, it was a different sort of warning, he thought. Stay away from him. Stay away from him, or what?
Anthony looked again at the envelope. He almost smacked himself on the head then. How had he not noticed before that it had no post mark, no stamp? It had been hand posted. Before, or after the postman had been? Or maybe someone had passed it to the postman and asked him to drop it through? Anthony picked the letter and envelope up and hurried towards the front door. “Daddy, the bear!” he heard Jess call out after him tiredly.
“One sec baby!” he called back, and opened the door. He stuck his head out and looked up and down the road. Nothing. No one. Not even the post van was in sight. He closed the door slowly and looked back down at the letter. This was bad, he thought. This was bad for so many reasons, not least being that whoever sent it knew where he lived. And assuming he did not stay away from Danny, would they know? How would they know, and what would they do? Anthony felt panic then, real live panic banging in his chest, and he quickly stuffed the letter back into its envelope, folded it in two and pushed it into his back pocket. He walked back to the kitchen, picked up his mobile, his cigarettes and his lighter and opened the back door.
“Daddy!” Jess wailed at him in frustration.
“Ah babes, sorry, I’ve got to call Uncle Mike,” he thought quickly when he saw the agonised look on her face, and reached for the biscuit tin. He found two kit-kats and chucked them onto the table. “Have a snack and then I’ll be right back to play okay?”
Outside Anthony closed the door, lit up the cigarette and phoned Michael. The phone rang and rang, but just before it went to messages, it was picked up.
“No, it’s Danny.”
“Oh shit. Is Mike there Dan? I need to speak to him.”
“He’s out for the count mate. Had a late one last night. Vomit all over the bathroom!”
“You’re joking me?” Anthony sighed and pressed his fist to his forehead. “Um,” he said then. “Something weird just happened. Have you had any post yet today?”
“Don’t know,” came Danny’s reply. “Hold on, I’ll check.”
Anthony waited while Danny checked. He thought about telling Danny about the letter and felt sick suddenly. “Nothing,” Danny said down the phone suddenly, making Anthony jump. “Why? What’s going on?”
Anthony sighed in reply. “I hate to tell you this Dan, but whoever did that graffiti has taken things up a level.”
“I just got a letter. Hand delivered. Addressed to me. It has a photo of you inside, and says ‘this man is a killer, stay away’.”
There was a long silence, during which Anthony smoked his cigarette, shivered without a coat on, and stole longing glances at the back door and his children beyond it. There was something creeping and horrible about all of this, he thought. It left a nasty taste in his mouth when he tried to imagine who had crept up to his door with that letter. Who and why? Finally he heard Danny clear his throat on the other end of the phone. “Okay,” he said quietly, sounding shocked. “I’m gonna’ have to call the cops again Anthony. They might want to come and get it from you.”
“Okay, no problem,” Anthony told him. “I’ll be in. I’m sorry mate, I really am. I don’t know what to say to you. This is just…” he shook his head, searching for the words to express the disgust he felt with the package now inside his pocket. “This is just outrageous,” he said, dropping his shoulders and scratching his head. “I can’t believe anyone would want to do this to you. I really can’t.”
“I better go,” Danny said in reply. “Thanks for telling me Anthony.”
Anthony hung up the phone and lingered outside to finish his smoke. He felt like a prick he realised, dropping that on Danny. But what else could he do? You couldn’t just ignore something like that, especially not after the two lots of graffiti. He paced back and forth for a moment, trying to think. Like Danny and Michael, Anthony could not help but place Lee Howard’s father as the main suspect. It had to be someone who was close to Howard, someone who didn’t believe Danny’s version of events, someone who didn’t think he should be free. Anthony wondered if the old man was getting some help though, if it was him. He was an old man, wasn’t he? How would he be following them all about, finding out where they lived and taking photographs?
Oh it was not worth thinking about, Anthony groaned to himself and stubbed his cigarette out against the wall before pressing both hands to his eyes. Should he tell Chrissie? Maybe the police would come and go before she got back, but then the kids would tell her, wouldn’t they? Anthony opened the back door and went back into the kitchen. He looked at his kids sitting at the table. Liam with his head still down, and his pen still flying. Jess was just staring back at him with narrowed eyes.
“You’re not supposed to smoke daddy,” she said to him, and he smiled at her softly.
“Sorry darling. Daddy is sorry.” He looked at her and felt a huge lump forming in his throat.
Half an hour later Anthony received a text message from Lucy; don’t know wot do 2-got letter warnin stay away from Dan!! Anthony immediately pressed call, his heart thumping in his chest. He edged out of the lounge where both the kids were engrossed in a DVD and closed the kitchen door softly behind him. Lucy answered on the first ring. “So did I,” Anthony said breathlessly. “About half an hour ago.”
“Oh my God…” Lucy sounded close to tears.
“What does yours say?”
“It’s a photo of Danny and says ‘this man is a killer, stay away from him’. I don’t know when it came Anthony. I went for a jog with my neighbour and it was there when I got back.”
“Hand delivered or stamped?”
“No stamp, so hand I guess. Yours?”
“Oh my God Anthony, what does this mean?”
“I’ve told Danny already,” Anthony whispered to her. “He said he was going to call the cops. You better let him know about yours, because they might want to come and get it. It’s evidence.”
“Someone knows where you live too,” Lucy breathed down the phone, her voice tight and thin. “Someone knows where we all live, and what our names are, and they know we’ve been with him and….”
“Calm down Lucy,” Anthony told her, though he felt anything but calm himself. “It’s just like the graffiti babe. Just words. It can’t hurt you. It’s some nasty spiteful person trying to scare us all.”
“Yeah but who?” Lucy hissed back at him. “That’s what I want to know! And they’re doing a pretty good job of scaring me now!”
“Lucy, can you call or text Billy? I don’t have his number.”
“You think him too?”
“We were all together at the pub that night, last month. We haven’t all met up together since then. I just want to see who else got one.”
“Okay,” Lucy said, sounding relieved to have some instruction. “I’ll call him.”
“Call me back if he got one.”
Anthony hung up on her and stood for a moment just staring down at his phone. He wondered if Danny had told Michael the news yet. He wondered if the police were on their way. How seriously would they take it? Would they really pay that much attention to an ex-con getting picked on? He nibbled at his fingernails, eyes on his phone, half expecting it to jump into life in his hand at any moment. He looked at the time and knew that the chances of the police and Chrissie running into each other were getting pretty high. He would simply have no choice but to explain it to her, which would mean telling her about the graffiti a few weeks back. He could see her face now. And she still hadn’t said yes to meeting Danny. She had a different excuse every time he suggested it. This was not going to go down very well at all.
His mind worked quickly then, flicking back and forth between being honest and grown up, telling her what had happened and dealing with the fall out. Or hiding it from her. Somehow. A thought occurred to him then. Get the letter over to Michael’s place so the police wouldn’t have to come to him. The kids would enjoy the walk. They could stop at the park on the way back. They would not see the police, so they would have nothing to tell their mum. He felt a stab of guilt then at how quickly his mind had seized on dishonesty, but that didn’t stop him from punching in a quick text to Danny’s phone, whilst slipping into the hall and shoving his feet into his shoes. “Got to go out kids!” he yelled at the lounge. “You fancy the park?”
Within another thirty minutes Anthony found himself shoving the letter, which had begun to feel like a dirty dead weight in his pocket, into Danny’s hesitant hand. He had come down to the bottom door to collect it. “Sorry,” Anthony told him instantly, and he realised he was saying sorry for more than just that. “Didn’t want to drag the kids up, once they see Uncle Mike I’ll never tear them away.”
Danny looked from one child to the other. “Hi.”
“Hi,” they both replied dutifully, looking unsurely back at their dad. Danny turned the envelope over in his hands.
“Lucy too,” he said. Anthony nodded.
“Really?” he looked up.
“She just text me when I was on my way over. What did the boys in blue say?”
“Just to hold tight,” Danny shrugged wearily and managed a smile. “Wait for them to come around. I guess they have a lot of other important stuff to do.”
“I’m sorry,” Anthony said again, slipping one hand absentmindedly onto Liam’s shoulder. He realised then that this was the first time Danny had met his kids, and felt like a complete scumbag. “I thought it best to get the letter to you, to save them the trouble of coming around.” He shrugged while Danny nodded in understanding, and felt repulsive in his uselessness.
“No problem,” Danny told him, and looked back over his shoulder. “Think Mike is waking up. I better go and fill him in.”
“Lucy gonna’ come over?”
“No I don’t think so.”
“Oh. You two okay though yeah?”
“I think so,” Danny sighed and pushed one hand back through his hair. He looked tired, Anthony thought. He looked like he was okay, like he was holding it all together somehow, but the dark circles under his eyes gave away the fact this was not easy, and he was only just about managing it. “Hey,” he said then, brightening a little, “did you ever get shit like this when you got out of jail?”
Anthony grinned awkwardly, and sort of pushed Liam to one side. He leant forward towards Danny. “They don’t know about all that,” he whispered, his smile trying not to be a grimace. Danny made a face and bit his lip.
“Oh whoops. Sorry.”
Anthony sighed, glanced at the kids, and then looked back at Danny. “Look this is all crap,” he said quietly. “I feel like a massive dick. I’ve got to get these two to the park then home, then I’m gonna’ come back over tonight okay? I think me you and Mike could do with a chat.”
“Okay,” Danny shrugged at him. “Sounds cool. You don’t need to feel like a dick, by the way.”
“I’ll explain later,” Anthony rolled his eyes and moved away from the door. “See you then, okay?”
Danny nodded and closed the door. “Who was that daddy?” Liam asked as soon as the door had closed.
“You know, me and Uncle Mikes friend, Dan. I told you all about him, didn’t I?”
“Oh he was the one that had a long holiday,” Liam nodded thoughtfully, hands in pockets. Anthony held his hand out to Jess and breathed out in relief when she automatically slipped her small hand into his.
“That’s right,” he told Liam. “Right let’s find the park and get you home before mummy gets back, yeah? We’ve got to get all the mess cleaned up before she gets home haven’t we?” They walked on in silence, but Anthony could not help looking back over his shoulder once or twice. It felt wrong, he realised, walking away, leaving Michael and Danny there alone. It reminded him of how awful he had felt when Michael had finally moved out to live alone. After Danny was sent down it had just been the two of them, lost and swamped in their own guilt and misery over everything that had happened. It was hard, but they had each other, and that had been enough to get them through, that and visiting Danny as often as he would let them. He had met Chrissie just a few months later, and that had been hard on Michael, he knew. Sharing his brother had been difficult enough, but he had tried his best not to get in their way, when they had all moved into a bigger flat together. He had tried, but Anthony had seen the same look in his dark eyes every day. He would be polite to Chrissie, he would try to be considerate, but he did not think she belonged, and she had felt the same about him. With the impending arrival of baby Liam, Michael had finally moved out when he was eighteen. It hadn’t felt right at all, Anthony remembered. He had felt like he was abandoning him, even though it was Michael’s decision to go. There had been some relief when Michael had met and moved in with Jenny. Anthony had been so excited about that. They would both be fathers now. They could take the kids out together, and maybe Michael and Chrissie would eventually see eye to eye. But of course Michael had screwed that all up from day one, messing around with other girls, and then ending up on his own again.
Anthony walked on, aware of the heavy feeling in his gut, the instinct that told him to turn around and go back and be with them. But then he looked down at his kids and saw he had no choice. This was nothing to do with them. They were the ones that needed protecting. Michael and Danny were grown men now. He told himself this again and again as he herded his children to the park. It did not seem to make him feel any better, and neither did the lies he was preparing in his head to tell his wife.