Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Twist Of Noir 082 - Julie Wright

THE LOAN ARRANGER - JULIE WRIGHT

Originally published in now-defunct Bullet Magazine #7

It’s Monday, so it’s Southwick, land of the short, pale person. White bread, white sugar, lard, chips and lager. You are what you eat.

I do the rounds, collect the cash, no problems. They’re all as good as gold. They know what’ll happen if they fuck me about. Some of them found out the hard way.

I’m the man with the money, personal banker to the perpetually skint. I make people’s dreams come true, especially at Christmas. If the bairns want something special, I have the power to let them have it. I’m the Santa Claus’s Santa Claus. I’m a fucking saint, me.

You won’t see my adverts on the telly, mind. I’ve not taken any billboards out lately either, but I’m chocka with business. Anybody needs a loan, all they have to do is ask. Anybody wants to stay in one piece, all they have to do is pay up in full, on time, every time.

I learned the ropes working for Alan Savage. His squad used to hang around the arcade when they’d finished collecting. I used to doll off school and go down there most afternoons, that’s how I got to know them. I started running messages for them, proved I could be trusted. When I turned sixteen, Savage took me on.

At first, I was still just an errand boy, but before long I was on the squad, out collecting with the lads. I loved it, took to it like a duck to water. Not that I’m violent, I’m not a headcase, man. There’s only bother when some fucker takes the piss, other than that I could be the man from the Pru. After a few years, though, I realised I was in a trap. I’d gone about as far as I could with Savage; he was a good boss, but I’d always be just an employee. I wanted more. I wanted my own operation.

I thought about it all the time. I knew I could handle it, I had the experience. I knew there was enough business, I could set up and he wouldn’t even notice me. I also knew that if I did, I would be taking a huge risk. I saw it as the next step, setting up for myself, but there was every chance Savage would see it as disloyal, me learning the business from him then setting up as competition. Bad things happened to people who pissed off Alan Savage. Bad things that were done to them by people like me.

I tried to forget about it, but that itch wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t just be satisfied with what I had. The job was easy, the arcade was boring. All I was doing was making time pass. Something had to change. About a year ago I set up a meeting with Savage, and change happened.

He listened while I explained what I had in mind, then he sat and thought it all through. Still as a rock, but I could see his mind ticking over behind his eyes, weighing it all up. I was hardly breathing, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I felt a bead of sweat run down my spine, tickling from the nape of my neck to the crack of my arse.

‘You’re ambitious. I’ve always known that,’ he said. ‘And I reckon you’re right, there probably is enough business to go round.’ I relaxed a little; dared to hope. ‘But you must know I can’t let you set up on your own, Edward. How would it look? You work for me.’ He laughed, but there was no mirth in it. ‘Or you did, anyway. Barry will be in touch.’

He turned back to the papers on his desk. That was it; I had been dismissed, just like that. A part of me that had kept its gob shut up until then suddenly wanted to be heard: How the hell else did you think it would end, dickhead? Did you think he’d throw you a fucking party? My guts turned to ice. I was fucked.

I paced the floor that night, waiting for Baz. I wanted him here on my territory, that way I had less of a disadvantage. I’d be watchful on the street, but he was a sneaky little fucker and mean with it. If he got the drop on me I’d had it. Baz liked space to fight in. My flat was small. Barely room to swing a bat, but I had one next to the front door anyway. Not much in my favour, but I’ll take whatever’s going.

He turned up at midnight, probably hoping I’d be off my face by then. I wasn’t.

‘Evening, Baz.’

‘Eddie.’ He nodded. ‘Nothing personal, mate.’

Not fucking much. Savage had picked his man well. Everyone knew that Baz had been looking for an excuse to slap me ever since that business with Sophie. She was out clubbing with her mates when I met her, how the fuck was I supposed to know she was Baz’s kid sister? I didn’t know he had one. I didn’t know she was only fifteen, either. She was just some jacked-up little bird wearing fuck-me shoes and a fanny pelmet. She looked eighteen, easy. Very fucking easy, as it turned out.

‘Just business,’ I agreed, then danced back out of the way as he took a swing at me and the door frame splintered under the force of the blow from his baseball bat. I reckoned that one must have rattled the teeth in his head when it landed. I fucking hoped so, anyway. I grabbed my cricket bat and took aim; let battle commence.

I wound up with a trashed flat, a black eye, a fat lip and a couple of cracked ribs. Baz ended up in hospital, as much a victim of his weapon of choice as of mine. Cricket bats are shorter, more manoeuvrable in an enclosed space. I just landed more hits than he did.

The neighbours knew better than to pick up the phone, so I rang Baz an ambulance myself, after I’d kicked him down the stairs and dragged him up the street. Let him be found outside of somebody else’s house. I didn’t need the aggro. I sent him flowers, though; after all, it was just business, nothing personal.

A couple of days later, I was back in front of Alan Savage. I had a new proposition for him. We could go on forever, him sending somebody round and me kicking the crap out of them. Fair enough, my luck would run out sooner or later, but I reckoned I had the measure of the squad he was running just then. I should know, I’d recruited them.

‘All right, son,’ he said, eventually. ‘A franchise. Let’s give it a go.’ He paused to check that I was listening, not that there was any need. He had my full attention. ‘I’ll give you your territories and I want fifteen percent of your take.’

‘Seven and a half.’

‘Ten.’

‘Agreed.’ I’d expected to have to pay twelve and a half, so that was a bonus.

‘You get me somebody who can fill your shoes. Until that’s sorted out, you stay put.’ I nodded again. That had been my idea. I couldn’t afford to pay for a franchise, not with my other set up costs. This was in lieu, this and the percentage. ‘And you stay on call, Edward. I need you, you’re there. No question, no charge.’

I hadn’t counted on that. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘For six months.’

‘Eighteen.’

‘Twelve.’

‘Twelve after the new boy’s ready.’

We shook on it.

The new boy is Jeff Jopling, JJ. He’s doing all right so far, which is keeping Savage sweet. Makes life easier.

It’s Tuesday, so I’m off to Pallion. Over the water. First call, old Pop Harris. Owes me two weeks. He’ll be shiting it if he’s come up short again.

I rap on the door, what my mam would call a money knock. The curtains twitch and I see Ma Harris’s wrinkly old face peering out. She’s mouthing something, looking nervous. I can’t hear what she’s saying.

‘Open the bloody door!’

She hears me, though. She hesitates. I mime kicking it in. She nods and a few minutes later I hear the bolt being drawn, the chain going on and the click of the lock. She peers out through the gap.

‘He’s not in, son.’

‘I need my money. Two weeks.’ I pretend to check the book, but the figures are all in my head. ‘That’s a hundred quid, not counting the extra interest incurred for late payment.’

Old man Harris is into me for about fifteen hundred now. He’ll pay back four times that, easy, more if he keeps slipping with the payments. Gambling debts. The bookie was going to break his legs, so I came to the rescue. Trouble is, the stupid old sod can’t lay off the gee gees, and his luck’s no better now than it was before. The way he’s going, me and the bookie will be breaking a leg each. He knows it’s no idle threat. The lad up the road still walks with a limp. And he’s still paying. Never misses, these days. If he does, he knows it’ll cost him a finger.

Ma Harris is shaking her head. ‘I haven’t got that kind of money, son. I’ve mebbe got ten pound in me purse, but I need that for food.’

‘Better than nothing. It’ll buy him a bit of time.’

She looks crushed, but she goes and gets her purse anyway. Poor old sod, worn thin with years of worry and want. I always wonder why women like that don’t leave, but they never do. They always stick with the useless tossers they married.

She passes the tenner through the gap, chain on the door giving her the illusion of safety. Her hands are shaking. When I do Pop Harris, I decide I’ll give him an extra boot in the bollocks just for her.

‘Tell him he’s got two days. I’ll be back on Thursday. He’d better be here.’

She nods, her eyes teary. She probably thought she’d be done with shite like this at her age, whatever that might be. She looks about a hundred and ten.

No sooner am I away from Harris’s than my mobile rings. It’s Savage.

‘Edward? Trouble. Your monkey’s fucked up.’

Bollocks! That’s all I need. Things have been sweet so far and I’m only at his beck and call for another month or so. Well, allegedly. A part of me knows I’ll never be free of Savage. I’ll always be paying him a percentage, always be at the end of a fucking chain that he can yank whenever he feels like it.

Ten seconds later and I’ve got JJ on the phone. I arrange to meet him in the Fort, see what the silly sod’s been up to, then I ring Kenny and get him to do tomorrow’s round for me.

‘He was pushing it, Eddie! He got what he deserved.’

‘You don’t beat the fuck out of the posh ones, man, I told you that.’

‘He set his lip up.’

‘You lost it, you mean.’

‘Thinks he’s a cut above.’

‘You shouldn’t have smacked him.’

‘He’s no better than I am. At least I can pay my bills.’ He scratched his head. ‘He’s pressing charges. I’m going down for this one, Ed, I’ve got previous.’ He swallowed his lager. ‘He wasn’t half as cocky after I bust his nose, mind. Snot everywhere. Cried like a fucking baby.’ He waggled his empty glass at me. ‘Pint?’

I shook my head and he went to the bar to get himself one. How the fuck was I going to sort this out? What a bastard mess!

‘He got family?’ I asked JJ when he came back, slopping Stella all over the table as he sat down.

‘Aye. Horse-faced bint and a couple o’ kids.’

‘Age?’

‘Late thirties?’

‘The kids.’

‘Oh. Senior school. They go to Southmoor.’

‘Any lasses?’

‘Both.’

‘Good. Enjoy your pint.’ I got up and headed off.

Thursday and I’m off to Seaburn, catch a bit of salty sea air. Ocean fucking finance. Savage isn’t the only one with middle-class clients. Makes good business sense. Some of these in their own homes, they’ve got even less cash than the housing association crowd. But they’ve got jobs, families, appearances to keep up. More to lose.

I’m done by one o’clock, although I’ll be back at seven to do my evening round, catch the workers while they’re having their dinner. It’ll be mince and spuds or fish fingers and beans for most of them. Summat cheap, anyway. Mind, if anybody asks them at work tomorrow, it’ll have been salmon and asparagus or veal escalopes with roasted root vegetables. As if anybody who ate that posh nosh would look as ill and grey as this lot do on their unremitting diet of shite and stress. Anyway, I’m done for now so it’s off to Pallion to catch up with Pop Harris.

On the way there, I get a call from Savage.

‘Nice work, son. All sorted.’

‘No worries, Mr S., all part of the service.’

Pop Harris is waiting for me, opens the door before I knock, and he’s got my dosh in his hand. I nod, take it and count it, mark the book up. I see Mrs H at the window. She jumps like she’s been burned when my eyes land on her. As the yellowy nets fall back into place, I see an empty space where the telly used to be.

I meet up with JJ again once I’m through with old man Harris. ‘Here,’ I say, passing the envelope over the table in the pub. ‘You hang on to that.’

‘What is it, like?’ He peers inside then pulls out the photographs and spreads them on the table.

‘Put them away, you fucking idiot!’ I gather them up before anybody can see them. Pictures of the wife dropping the kids off and picking them up. Pictures of the kids in the town with their mates. Pictures of the bloke’s family when they’re vulnerable. Evidence of how I spent Wednesday. I trailed around after people, sat in the car and watched, took pictures, waited for my chance.

I got it when I saw Shergar load the kids into the car and take off after tea. I let myself in, caught him at the kitchen table with the Guardian sudoku puzzle and a glass of red wine. He nearly shit when he saw me. I nearly laughed out loud. With his two black eyes, he looked like he had a burglar’s mask on.

‘Who are you?’ he demanded, once he’d recovered from the shock of me being in his house and had realised that I wasn’t just there to hurt him. ‘What do you want?’

‘You owe a lot of money to an associate of mine.’

‘Your associate did this to me.’ He indicated his face, purple and yellow bruising showing around the bandages taped to his nose. ‘I owe him nothing.’

‘Your debts aren’t cancelled just because he stuck the nut on you.’

‘How about if I drop the charges?’

‘Good idea, why don’t you?’

‘Well, I will, if he does his bit.’ He sat back, ready to cut a deal.

‘What bit?’

He tapped his nose and nodded. ‘Cancels the debt.’ It was like being in a Carry On film. I was just waiting for the bugger to wink.

‘What are you saying?’

Cheeky sod tutted and rolled his bloody eyes. ‘I’ll drop the charges if he cancels the debt.’ He enunciated each word carefully, like he was speaking to an idiot. I could see why JJ had twatted him. I was tempted myself.

‘Oh, I see.’

‘Well? How about it?’

‘No chance.’

‘It’s a fair deal. Take it or leave it.’

‘You’re kidding yourself,’ I told him. ‘It just won’t happen.’

‘It would be worth his while, surely. The publicity...’

‘The publicity is just fine the way it is. You defaulted on a payment, you got a smack. You’ve done him a favour, really. It’ll be all over the papers when it goes to court. Gets the message across loud and clear.’ He hadn’t thought of that. ‘On the other hand, your neighbours, your family, the people you work with, they’re all going to find out that you have money problems and that the banks won’t touch you.’

‘He’s a thug. It’s an assault charge.’

‘It’ll all come out, I can promise you that. All the details, the full story. As for my associate, well, prison is an occupational hazard.’

‘But he will be locked up. He can’t collect money if he’s in prison.’

‘He’ll be looked after while he’s inside and his job will be waiting when he comes out, along with a nice, fat bonus for being a good and loyal employee.’

He sat back and folded his arms, stuck his chin out. ‘I’m not paying another penny. There’s no way anyone can touch me now.’

‘Nice looking girls you have.’

‘What?’

‘Your daughters. What are they, twelve and fourteen? Something like that.’

‘You leave them out of this!’

‘She looks like a nice lass, the little blonde one.’ I flipped a photo onto the table in front of him, the youngest kid waving and smiling.

‘You wouldn’t dare.’

I spread the other pictures out across the table. ‘You can make this all stop now.’

‘I’ll have the law on you!’

‘After my associate, you got me. After me, someone else will come. Then another, and another, and another. You’ll never meet the man you owe money to. You’ll never be in a position to touch him. Are you getting the picture?’ I stirred the prints with my finger.

‘Fucking scum! I’ll break your neck!’ He jumped to his feet, crashed into the table and sent the wine glass flying, but for all he was quick, he was soft, spent all day in front of a computer. I got his arm behind his back and pushed his face into the scrubbed pine. He howled, his nose still tender from JJ’s ministrations. I saw him eye the broken wine glass, his imagination doing my work for me.

‘Drop the charges, no-one gets hurt. Your call.’

‘He’s dropped the charges.’ JJ tells me what I already know. ‘Thanks, Eddie.’

‘Just don’t fuck up again.’

‘I lost it, man. I let him wind me up.’ He grinned, embarrassed. ‘It won’t happen again, don’t worry.’

‘Sometimes you use your fists, other times you use your loaf. I told you this.’

‘I know. Sorry, mate.’

Friday, last collecting day of my week, and I’m off to sunny Hendon. Third call and I’m at the door of one Bobby Robson. No kidding. This one’s a spotty little scrote with an attitude problem. I knock, my money knock, then listen. Sure enough, I hear the back door slam. Mid-terrace, so pick a direction and go for it. I take off and race round the block. Luck’s on my side and Bobby-oh ends up running down the back lane towards me. He looks up when he hears the pounding feet and his eyes nearly pop out of his head. He skids to a halt cartoon style, does an about turn and takes off again.

I catch him easily. He’s sweating like a rapist, breath tearing at his lungs. I’ve barely broken a sweat. I get him by the scruff and throw him against the wall. While the back of his head’s still stotting off the brickwork, I punch him in the gut and step back smartly. Sure enough, he doubles and pukes. Misses me, though, which is lucky for him. These boots cost a packet.

‘You owe me,’ I tell him.

It’s a couple of minutes before he can speak. ‘It was me mam’s birthday. Had to get her a present.’

‘What about your repayment?’

‘Next week, mate. I’ll have it all for you, get back on track.’ He’s gasping air like a mackerel flapping on the pier.

‘And how will you manage that, Rockefeller?’

‘What?’ He doesn’t get it.

‘HOW THE FUCK WILL YOU PAY?’ I shout, and I swear a few of his spots pop in terror.

‘Sell something.’ He’s not half so cocky now. You aren’t, though, when you’re kneeling in your own puke.

‘Sell what?’

‘Mountain bike. It’s a good ‘un. I don’t use it.’

That much was obvious from his athletic prowess. I put the toe of my boot under his chin, turn his face up to mine. ‘Make sure you do.’

He nods as best he can under the circumstances. I kick him in the ribs and walk away. I can hear him behind me, sniffing and cockling like a brat.

Out on the front street I see a group of kids playing football. Little Tommy Briggs runs over in his new Sunderland strip. Brand spanking, just out this week and he’s got it on his back. Other kids watching him with green eyes.

‘I got it for my birthday, Mr Bell.’ He stands in front of me, showing it off.

‘Looking good, Tommy.’

‘Me mam said she got the money off you. Thanks, Mr Bell.’

I ruffle his hair. ‘No bother, son. Tell your ma I’ll see her next week.’

He runs off to join his mates, kicking the ball around the streets, proud as punch in his new footie strip.

I made that possible. Me. That’s what I do. I make people’s dreams come true.

BIO: Julie lives by the seaside in the north east of England. She's had stories published here and there, including Powder Burn Flash, Muzzle Flash, Flash Pan Alley, Out of the Gutter and Darkest Before the Dawn. She thanks you for reading.

6 comments:

Al Tucher said...

Damn. Glad I'm not a short pale person. Good hard job.

Paul Brazill said...

Great one Julie. I used to know an Alan Savage in Middlesbro...

Julie said...

Thanks for the kind words, folks, much appreciated. (Paul - I hope you weren't indebted to him!)

Joyce said...

Great story, Julie. Well written, well paced, terrific characters too. Love characters that are all business--no emotion, no sensitivity--just business. Love this one.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Lovely last lines to end a crackin' good story.

Julie said...

Thanks, gals - too kind! :)