He got the text message from Michael at half past four. Get away as soon as we can. It’s on for 6pm at the club. Anthony answered the text, and then stuffed his mobile phone into his back pocket. The time worked well for him, he thought. He was working a double shift, and wasn’t due to clock off until eight. If he feigned illness and got away before six o’clock, then there was a good chance the whole thing would be done and dusted by eight. He would be able to return home on time. He was hoping he would never have to lie to his wife again after tonight.
After making several fake dashes to the toilet, Anthony claimed he had a bad stomach, and was promptly sent home. No one wanted a chef with a dodgy tummy working in the restaurant. He changed out of his grease stained work clothes, chucked them in the back of his car, and drove off. He felt a nervous drumbeat throbbing through his body as he drove towards Redchurch. It made him lick his lips and grasp the steering wheel tight enough to make his knuckles ache.
There was a part of him that felt wound up tight, and full of dread as he headed back to that place. It was the part of him that felt like the scum of the earth for telling his wife so many lies. It was the part of him that told him he should do as she asked, stay away from trouble, keep his nose out of it all. But the other part of him was kicking his arse all the way along, again and again, bang, bang, bang, get a move on, get over there, get it started. It was a part of him he had left behind a long time ago. Remnants of the troublemaker he had once been. He smiled recklessly to himself, as he drove back to the familiar territory. He saw himself as a young teenager, giddy with his own swagger and balls. He had been full of himself, with every good reason to be. Michael had grown up with his eyes fixed upwards, emulating his older brother from the petty crimes, to the fights with boys after school.
He’d thought he was the bees knees, hadn’t he? Big and strong and handsome. Not afraid of anything or anyone. The day he had laid his father out on the kitchen floor had been one of the best days of his life. Michael had been hovering in the background. No one was ever going to push them around again. He hadn’t even been that bothered about going to prison the first time. It had been on the cards for years. There are only so many times the police and the courts can warn a young man to behave himself. Maybe there had been a part of him that had wanted to go. Another string to add to the bad boy bow.
That was the part of him that Chrissie did not know, or understand, Anthony reflected. She had a distinct habit of talking over him, or changing the subject whenever a slice of the old him appeared in a conversation. It’s okay, he sometimes wanted to tell her, I don’t want to go back to being that person, not ever, talking about it won’t change me back to him. He could never quite get it through to her, that he had stopped being that person when he met Danny. She had an irrational fear and suspicion of a man she had still not even met, and yet Anthony knew that boy had changed him more than anything, or anyone else had. That she should be thanking him, not fearing him.
I wanted to help him, Anthony thought, swinging his car around the roundabout and following Barrack road, past the police station and the youth club, that’s when I changed. When I wanted to help him. Didn’t want to get in trouble anymore. Wanted to get him out of trouble.
It had seemed so simple, at first. Anthony recalled how he had revelled in his position as the older boy the younger ones could turn to. He had relished the thought of getting his hands on Lee Howard. That night in the garden, on Danny’s fourteenth, he had sent the boys inside the house and given it to Howard straight. He had provided his most menacing stare, his blood-thirstiest grin. With his friends behind him, he had sent that small eyed, thin lipped bastard packing. Done. He had clapped his hands, grinned smugly at his friends, looked forward to telling the boys not to worry. How wrong he had been.
Anthony could still remember the feeling now. Having the ground ripped out from under his feet. The confusion. The hammering at the door, the police swarming in violently, handcuffing him and dragging him outside in just his tracksuit trousers. Horror and disbelief swamping his mind. Seeing Michael and Billy skidding to a stop on their bikes outside, as he was shoved into a police car. He smoked a bit of dope, but he did not deal. It wasn’t fair. He was set up. He was fucked over. No time to help Danny, or spend time with Mike, it was just all over. Back to prison. He hadn’t done anything wrong.
Oh those months had dragged in misery. He had been overwhelmed by his own sense of helplessness and self-pity. How could he be back in prison again? How could this happen? How could he prove it was all wrong? How could he get back out there and help Danny? He couldn’t. The realisation had led him into the first real depression of his entire life. He couldn’t do anything. All he could do was serve the time. Bide his time. Hope for the best. Grit his teeth.
Anthony approached the roundabout, narrowed his eyes at the desolate nightclub across the road, and turned left, and then left again. He pulled into the car park of the Conservative club, overlooking the roundabout. It was almost directly opposite Howler. It was surrounded by a chain link fence, beyond which a row of neatly maintained conifer hedging further helped disguise his car. He killed the engine and sat back, closing his eyes briefly, pressing them together and allowing himself a deep, steadying breath.
Prison had changed him that time. He had felt it, and he had known it whenever Michael looked into his eyes. He was just as vulnerable as they were, and they all knew it. He had been wrong about Lee Howard. Anthony reached into the back then, retrieving his cigarettes and his mobile phone from the pockets of his chef whites. He saw that he had missed a call from Lucy, but tucked the phone between his legs, while he lit himself a cigarette. He smiled to himself wryly. He had been trying to give up again, but if there was any time that called for a smoke, surely this was it? Into the dragons den, and all that, he mused, picking the phone back up and bringing up Lucy’s number. Before he called her, he gazed back out of the windscreen, at the glimpse of Howler he had through the bushes. A sadness settled deep within him then, as he tried to imagine all the nights Danny must have spent there, collecting glasses and washing up. Just a small boy in the palm of monsters. He recalled the time Danny had shown up with a cut to his forehead, and fresh blood pumping from his nose and mouth, as usual just brushing it off as if it was nothing. It was the night they had been getting ready to go to Chaos for the first time. He could still see Danny’s face, beaming with excitement, hopping around impatiently, while Anthony kicked the wall and longed to go and beat the shit out of Lee Howard, while at the same time realising that he had to hold back, he had to be smarter than that.
Danny had rolled his eyes, dismissing it, longing to get going, to get to the club that played his music. Anthony had let them go, watched them from the window, Michael with hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched anxiously, while Danny bounded on ahead, laughing and shouting. He’d watched them go, seething in disgust and rage, balling his hands into fists against the window pane. What could he do? He had just got back from prison. He was terrified of getting sent back. Howard could do it again, couldn’t he? What could he do?
That night, he had sat watching and listening as they dissected the amazing time they had had, and he could tell by their eyes that they had taken something. He didn’t say anything until morning, and his fears had intensified overnight. Smoking weed was one thing, but he didn’t want his little brother taking anything else. He had felt utterly helpless, like a pointless gaping bystander, just hanging back and watching aghast as the lives of the two people he cared about most were put at risk. In the end he had pulled Danny to one side and warned him never to give that shit to Michael again. He hadn’t enjoyed it, first the look of fear that leapt into the boys eyes when he grabbed him, and then the instant flash of hurt, followed by anger and distrust.
Anthony sighed, and looked away from the club. He tried not to picture who might be in there now, and why. He rubbed his eyes awake, rolled his window down a little, and tapped his ash outside. And then there was Michael and Lucy, dragging Danny back from the beach, a total wreck, so fucked and out of it he could barely stand. Anthony recalled his dismay, his frustration, how could this be happening? He’d thought again, what could he do? Confront Howard again? Go to the police? Talk Danny into telling the police? He even considered going to the boys mother. It was only when Danny coughed up the name of his drug dealer, that Anthony started to form a loose plan in his mind. It had spiralled from there.
He knew the Lawlers. He could find Jaime and talk to him. It was a start. Yeah, he thought now, his finger still hovering over the call button to Lucy, it had been a start, the start of getting us all in even deeper. I should have gone to the fucking police. I would have…but I was scared of going back to jail… He supposed he felt a lot like Danny did about it these days. If he could go back and face himself at that age, he would shake himself by the shoulders, tell him to do the right thing. Get the police involved, the social services, anything. Get Danny away from those men, and get those men locked up. It didn’t seem like it was possible at the time.
He sighed, shook his head and pressed call. Lucy answered almost instantly, as if she had been holding the phone right next to her ear. “Anthony?” She sounded scared, he thought, and he didn’t blame her. “What’s going on? The other two won’t answer their phones!”
“It’s okay, I just heard from Mike,” he told her gently. “He’s low on credit, so doesn’t want to use any up unless he has to. Think Danny has his turned off for the moment. He had a run in with that Haskell woman earlier, and she keeps phoning him.”
“Oh? Why? What happened?”
“She’s been involved from the start, didn’t Danny tell you yet?”
“Involved? With what? No, he didn’t!” Lucy sounded perilously close to tears, Anthony thought grimly.
“We only found out when I got hold of Jaime Lawler. He works for Howard too. Drug dealing again. He told us Haskell has been on Howard’s side the whole time, letting him know where we all live and that. Probably posted some of those letters herself, who knows?”
“Bloody hell Anthony!” Lucy cried down the phone.
“I know, I know. Look, we’ll have to explain it all properly to you later darling. I’m parked opposite Howler at the moment.”
“What are you all going to do?”
“Hopefully nothing,” he told her honestly. “I’m just sat out here in case they need me. Hopefully it will just be a chat, Lucy. They’ll just try and sort it all out.”
“But you can’t trust men like that!” she hissed desperately down the phone at him.
“It’s alright” he tried to tell her. “We have a plan. It’s all sorted. We’ll be okay Lucy, I promise you.”
“You can’t promise me that,” she replied tightly. “None of you can. This is just like before, you three taking things into your own hands. It will all blow up in your faces if you’re not careful! Why don’t you just tell the police?”
“It’s not that simple Luce. Danny needs to speak to Howard. He needs to put it behind him, and this will be the way. He’s not going in alone. Mike’s going in too, whether they like it or not. I’m watching Lucy. I’ll call the cops the first sign of trouble I see, I promise.”
“I don’t want him to end up back in jail again.” Her voice was tiny now, cloaked in tears. “Like last time Anthony. What if it happens again?”
“No weapons,” Anthony assured her uselessly. “It won’t be like that. I promise. It’s different.”
“I hope so,” Lucy told him and hung up the phone. Anthony closed his eyes briefly, awash with fresh guilt. Then he scrolled down the contacts on his phone. He had added the number for the police station just minutes down the road. In case we need it. He glanced at the time. Ten minutes to six. He wrote a text to Michael and sent it; I’m here. Place looks dead from out here. Your end?
We’re in the alley. Couple of cars parked close. Must be them. We’ll go in dead on 6. Michael hit send, then threw his head back against the head rest in his car, pushing a nervous hand stiffly through his hair. “How you feeling?” he asked, with his eyes closed. He heard Danny shifting on the passenger seat, and clearing his throat.
“Like something crawled into my stomach and died there.”
Michael laughed, opened his eyes and looked at him. “Yeah, you look kind of like that too!”
“Shut up. Look at you. I saw your hand shaking on the steering wheel on the drive over!”
Michael leaned towards him digging him in the side with an elbow. Danny shoved him back, punched him in the arm. There was a smattering of gentle, nervous laughter, and then they both fell silent again. Michael checked the time on his phone. Five minutes to go.
“Feel a bit naked,” Danny croaked next to him. He coughed, clearing his throat again, and drummed his fingers against the dashboard as he gazed out and up at the building to their left. “Without a shit load of knives on me, I mean.” He looked at Michael again, a grin on his face, dread in his eyes. Michael nodded sombrely.
“We’ve got Anthony.”
“I have a feeling I sense some pain heading my way,” Danny said, still grinning. Michael grunted. He did not even want to think about it.
“You better turn your phone back on,” he said. “Get Anthony’s number up ready.”
Danny pulled out his phone, and Michael watched him pressing the buttons, and trying not to let the shake in his hand show too much. He didn’t blame him one little bit. He felt sick to his stomach with fear, and he didn’t have as many reasons as Danny did to be afraid. But this was where it would all end, wasn’t it? He had not yet grown tired of repeating this assurance inside his mind. It would all end here tonight, because Danny would talk to Jerry Howard. Something would happen. Michael still had no idea if Danny planned to agree to any of the old man’s terms, but he guessed it was better that way. His job was just to be there.
“Another four missed calls from Haskell,” Danny remarked beside him. Michael shook his head in disgust.
“Unbelievable. Why doesn’t she just crawl off and die? I still can’t believe that hard nosed bitch.”
“What about what she said?” Danny looked at him, biting his lower lip.
“I wouldn’t believe a word that woman said, Danny. Not a word. And even if it is true, if her mums’ fella’ abused her or whatever, why the fuck would that make her do what she did?” He lifted his hands in a gesture of frustration. “Why? I mean, if it’s true, then she should know how it feels, she shouldn’t be helping people like them!”
“She wanted to kill him, she said,” Danny replied, gazing down at the phone that lay in the palm of his hand. “She never had the guts.”
“So what? Who cares? Fuck her. She screwed you over big time, mate, don’t forget that. We wouldn’t even need to be doing this if she hadn’t been helping that fucker in there, would we?”
He watched Danny consider it. He felt the urge to roll down the window and spit out of it. Just the sound of that woman’s name on his tongue made him feel queasy and on edge. He had seen her on the pavement, clinging to Danny, whining and wailing. What a performance! Michael did not buy a word of it. “Don’t you go feeling sorry for her,” he warned Danny then, who looked back at him quickly with a frown. “I mean it mate. I know what you’re like. You’re already making up excuses for her in your head, aren’t you?”
“No, course not.”
“Yes you are. You’ve got that look in your eye. You feel sorry for her.”
“I do, in a way.”
“You don’t even know if it’s true,” Michael protested, twisting in the driver seat to face him properly. “It’s probably all bullshit about this man abusing her. Just another way for her to stick the knife in! She’s sick, that’s all it is Dan, she is sick. She just wanted a good juicy story, and she got that in the end didn’t she?”
“It would explain it, that’s all,” Danny shrugged, and looked back out of the window, closing his hand over his phone. “Why she was so obsessed for years.”
“Whatever, just don’t you go feeling sorry for her, and when this is all over, don’t you bloody go anywhere near her. She’s poison.”
“I might not even be around here anyway,” came the distant reply.
“What are you saying? What does that mean?” Michael asked him sharply.
“Got to think what to do for the best. For everyone.”
“You’re not gonna’ fucking let them chase you away.” Michael patted his arm, forcing him to turn to look at him. “Do you know, between us, Lawler and Haskell we have enough to go to the police? We could get Howard sent down. That’s what we need to focus on when tonight is over, depending on how it goes. We haven’t done anything wrong remember? We haven’t broken any laws. They fucking have.”
“I know, I know.”
“Well then, don’t let me hear you talk like that. We don’t want scum like them winning Danny. We don’t want scum like them running the place!”
“Michael, it’s six o clock.”
“What?” Michael looked at his own phone. He felt his stomach fall to his feet. “Oh fuck.”
He looked up, caught a glimpse of the abject misery on his friends face, and then watched him take a huge breath, before reaching for the handle and opening the car door. Michael opened his side, got out and closed the door quietly. They both looked up at the building. It had been painted a startling white out the front, with a neon blue sign that flashed on and off in the dark, Howler, but out the back it was the same drabby grey it had been back then.
Michael came around to stand by Danny. He wanted to say something, but all he could think of was good luck, and that sounded terrible. So he nudged him instead, and nodded at his phone. Danny showed him that he had Anthony’s number up. Michael nodded, swallowing the hard lump that had formed in his throat. “Press call as soon as we see anyone,” he whispered, and then wondered why he was whispering, and why the hell he suddenly felt about fourteen years old again.
Danny nodded, placed the phone in his pocket and approached the back door. There were three dirty steps. He stepped onto one, then reached out and pressed the buzzer to the right side of the door. His eyes flicked nervously back to Michael. Michael waited, one step behind him, not breathing.
He expected the buzzer to return with a voice, or a buzzing noise, but that did not happen. Instead, they heard several locks being turned, or drawn back. They swapped looks again. Michael shifted from one foot to the other, feeling the air leak out of his lungs. He told himself to snap out of it. This was an old man they were dealing with. Lee Howard and Jack Freeman were dead and in the ground. But it was not the old man who answered the door. It was the wide staring face of the man they now knew to be Nick Groves.
The man was taller than them by a good few inches, built like a wrestler, and with the steps between them, Michael suddenly felt even smaller and younger than he had before. Nick Groves was dressed in a snappy grey suit, and he greeted them with a sneering smile that stretched out and up towards his small round ears. His shaven head was huge and round, and reminded Michael of a bowling ball, gleaming upon his wide, square shoulders. “Evening lads,” came the gruff, yet pleasant greeting. He sounded amused, Michael thought, staring at him. Like he knew he was in for a fun night. He held the door open for them, and Danny looked at him once, then made it up the steps, squeezing past Nick Groves into the dark and narrow hallway that was beyond. Michael followed quickly, not wanting to lose him, afraid that the door would be slammed in his face.
But Nick Groves let him through, and Michael squeezed past the big man’s chest, as Danny had before him. Nick Groves slammed the door behind him, clapped his hands in delight, and when Michael turned to look at him, all he could see was that huge shining head rushing violently towards his, the man’s eyes sparkling with hunger. Michael did not even have time to remove his hands from his pockets. The head smashed into his, darkness exploded, and as he went down he fought to say the words, to urge Danny to act, press call Danny! Press call! Call!