Dark and funny. Strong Language. 3400 words.
|Please read previous chapters first. Uk spelling and terminology.
Stuck in mid-morning traffic, the whole bus gave a diesel shudder and lurched forward another few feet. Colin didn’t mind the delay. He could use the time to plan his next move. Instead, his thoughts returned to the excitement of his great escape, flashing on the highlights. How he had set it up, recording himself shouting for help, putting the phone in the trouser pocket, adjusting the mannequin legs to look just right hanging from the air vent. Then the guards rushing in, unaware of him crouching behind them. The slam of the door with the keys still in the lock. Even though he didn’t get to see their faces, he could picture them now. They might still be stuck in that store room. Colin chuckled, louder than he intended.
‘Where are you getting off?’ asked the woman squeezed up against his arm, her caked white face cracked into a hundred powdered crevices. Of all the seats available, she had, for some reason, chosen to sit next to him.
‘Bottom of Pasteur Gardens,’ he said.
‘Same as me!’ She sounded fucking delighted by the shared destination. She leaned closer, her flowery sweet scent hitting him like being sprayed point blank with a can of air freshener. ‘Don’t let me miss my stop, will you?’ she said, her bright pink lipstick identical in colour to her plastic pink raincoat. ‘I’m terribly forgetful these days.’ She pushed her big, wet eyes at him.
Colin leaned away. He would have climbed out the window if it there’d been a way to open it. ‘Okay.’ He tilted his head up to watch the adverts appearing at the front of the bus. Put a hand on his chin to say, I am engrossed, please do not disturb.
This bus is sponsored by Fairsfair.net Casino. The words faded in and out on the digital screen, about level with the back of the driver’s head. Poker. Blackjack. Roulette. Name your game. Place your bets. By e-mail. By text. Big Wins Guaranteed.
The pink lady carried on talking but Colin ignored her, despite the occasional nod in her direction to suggest otherwise.
Presented with a tangible problem – freeing himself from a locked room – he had managed a solution. Success gave him confidence, a cold resolve that calmed him. He saw Danny as the next thing to be dealt with.
Please gamble responsibly. With Fairsfair. The image dissolved to white and then Susan’s eyes appeared, followed by her nose and lips.
Science, the word emerged beside her, followed by, the Answer to Everything.
A small girl bounced into the seat in front of him, her top knot a swishing windscreen wiper. She batted her muddy-brown eyes at Colin.
‘I love her,’ she squealed, pointing at Susan’s photoshopped face with a tiny finger. ‘I’m going to be just like her when I grow up.’
For one North London minute Colin considered telling Susan’s No. 1 fan a few home truths about her idol. ‘Shouldn’t you be in school, then?’
The little girl rolled down her bottom lip and wrinkled her nose as if she didn’t appreciate the smell of his question. ‘Don’t be silly. You don’t need to go to school to be a model.’
The old lady bent forward, creaking audibly – possibly the seat, possibly not – and wiggled her fingers at the girl. ‘Oh, aren’t you the cutest thing?’
Colin glanced over his shoulder. ‘Where’s your mum?’
The little girl shrugged. ‘I’m not supposed to call her that when we go see a client. I have to use her dancer name. You have to have a special name when you’re in show business.’
‘What’s her dancer name?’ Colin couldn’t help but ask.
‘Magdalene!’ shrieked a duplicate of the little girl that hardly seemed any older, just enlarged. She tottered up from the back of the bus, waving a gold mobile phone encrusted with sparkly bits. ‘What did I tell you about paedos? They’re everywhere, you little tart. You think I don’t get enough grief already? How am I gonna look if there’s pictures of your pom-pom all over the bleeding internet?’
She grabbed the girl by her hooded top and yanked her off the seat. They were dressed identically in baby blue tracksuits, with stripes on their sleeves and stripes on their shoes. The woman pointed her phone at Colin. ‘You want to be ashamed of yourself, chatting up a six year old.’ She thrust the phone at his face and the pinhole on the back winked. ‘If she goes missing, I’m selling your photo to the papers. Your life won’t be worth shit.’
She stomped away, pulling the child behind her.
‘God, I hate chavs,’ Colin sighed to no one in particular.
‘The feeling’s mutual, cunt,’ the little girl said as she was dragged away.
His seat buddy nudged him with her elbow and said, ‘Are we there yet?’
‘No.’ Colin shook his head. ‘Not yet.’
On the screen, a grinning black man in police uniform suggested the New Metropolitan Police Service was the cool place to work.
Then Colin was busy thinking what the police would do to him. Both Archie and the bank wanted someone to blame, and they didn’t care who. Maybe a little more fabricated evidence to make sure of things. Why not throw in a couple of eyewitnesses and a missing laptop? Danny was probably suggesting it right now.
The Oyster card in his hand slipped smoothly between thumb and forefinger, the blue plastic interrupted by the sticky black magnetic strip. The police would have his name and address by now. First, they would check his house. Even if he didn’t go back there, they would be able to track his movements through the card in his hand, the one he had swiped when boarding the bus. If he could check his own comings and goings online then it was a cinch that the police could too.
Colin rose and pressed the bell, muttering sorrys at the old woman who made a small ooh sound as she slowly stood up to let him out.
He stepped off the bus and threw his Oyster card into a roadside bin. If the police wanted to catch him they could do it the hard way. Colin turned to find the lady in the pink coat standing behind him. She looked in one direction and then another, her features falling and rising the way someone who thinks they’ve remembered the thing they forgot, but no, that wasn’t it.
‘This isn’t my stop,’ she said to Colin in a wavering voice. ‘You said you were getting off at Pasteur Gardens.’ She began chewing on mouthfuls of air.
‘No, I …’ Colin looked up at the dot matrix read-out to see when the next bus was expected. It said, due – which probably meant at least half an hour. ‘There’ll be another one along in a minute.’
‘Oh, no, I’ll be late now. Whatever will I do?’ Her expression changed from sagging disappointment to one of concern as she took in the red britches that ended in faux-fur white trim three inches above Colin’s bare ankles.
Colin looked down the road in the vain hope of seeing a red dot appear in the distance. Instead, two policemen in bright yellow tabards plodded toward him.
‘Oh, look,’ Colin pointed, ‘there’s another bus, now.’
The old lady turned, her bus pass raised in reflexive salute, and Colin ran into the nearest shop.
The door beeped as he entered. A large handwritten sign said: Only two school children at any time, underlined in red. Magazines lined the wall, shelf after shelf of glossy ladies winking and pouting. Colin leaned forward a little, just another browser. Slow pigeon steps took him further into the shop, but with his eyes moved to the side so he could watch the street. The policemen strolled into view. Colin stopped and picked up a magazine. The rear of the shop contained items as diverse as canned goods and model aeroplanes. Fresh fruit stacked in crates next to a freezer full of ice cream and Birdseye peas.
Colin found he was holding a copy of Cosmopolitan with a picture of a feisty woman in a daring evening gown with her confident hands on her independent hips. Reincarnation, read the headline. Who you were in a previous life, and how much you weighed.
A customer with a bag full of shopping nudged past him. Colin watched Raffo walk out of the shop. For a second, he wondered why Raffo was waiting at a bus stop that would take him away from work, but then he noticed the two policemen standing right in front of the shop window.
He put back the copy of Cosmo and shuffled further into the store, glancing over his shoulder as he went. Why were the cops standing around? Didn’t they have things to do?
The checkout counter at the back of the store was manned by a middle-aged woman with a greasy pony tail and in a tight, sleeveless shirt, chewing gum. She had half a dozen nicotine patches down one arm and a cigarette pushed behind one ear.
‘Excuse me,’ Colin said, ‘is there a back way out of here?’
She turned a page of the newspaper on the counter, The Racing Post, looked up at him, then down again and turned another page. ‘What d’you mean, love?’
‘I thought maybe there’s a back door into an alley or something. I can’t go out the front.’
She carried on turning pages. ‘Why’s that, love?’
Colin ran his tongue over his bottom lip. ‘There’s a bunch of kids out there acting a bit leery, if you know what I mean.’
The only response he got was the woman licking her thumb as an aid to page turning.
‘I think one had a knife,’ Colin said.
‘Sounds about right,’ the woman said.
If the woman chose to look up, she’d see a total lack of knife-wielding teens, just a couple of coppers guarding her premises. Fortunately, the woman wasn’t easily distracted from the day’s runners and riders.
Colin sized her up as someone who valued age before beauty. ‘These kids, they were hassling this harmless old geezer, and I told them to knock it off. I think they’ve got it in for me now.’
She nodded and turned pages.
‘He was really old, you know. Probably a veteran.’ Clearly, this woman wasn’t easily impressed. ‘He was in a wheelchair.’
He got a quiet, ‘Uh-huh,’ out of her for that one.
‘I think he might have been mentally handicapped too, ‘cos he was drooling a bit.’
She kept nodding, like she knew the guy he was talking about.
‘And they were kicking his dog,’ Colin said.
She paused mid-page turn. ‘What kind of dog?’
Raffo sat on the bus, poring over the magazine he’d just bought: Secrets of Texas Hold ‘Em. Fifty-two issues, with a free playing card each week. Yours to collect. Part one with bonus card.
Games of chance had fascinated him since his discovery that thirteen percent of people suffering from Parkinson’s disease became compulsive gamblers. Perfectly normal people suffering from the gradual and irrevocable death of dopamine neurons would bet everything they owned on the longest odds they could find.
Doctors had given them dopamine agonists, like pergolide and ropinirole and L-dopa, to stimulate their remaining neurons to produce more dopamine to compensate. Dopamine: the brain’s happy treat for getting things right. Only now they overflowed with it, pooling in the empty spaces between the brain cells. Puddles of chemical ecstasy waiting to make a big splash.
A half-bent lady clutched onto the pole adjacent and leaned in. ‘Where are you getting off?’ She looked down at the bag of shopping on the seat next to him and raised her pencilled-in eyebrows.
Raffo lifted his gaze and narrowed it. He recognised the type, the painted face, the garish outfit – a trollop. The kind his mother had warned him about. ‘That’s hardly any of your concern is it, madam?’ He continued reading about the statistical probability of calling to an inside straight. He kept one eye on the floosie.
The sparkle in her eye spluttered out and her pink lips quivered. She turned away in slow increments and rocked away down the aisle.
Dopamine was a key part of Raffo’s plans for Susan. Like a monkey pressing buttons to get a squirt of apple juice, the human brain loved to predict events and get a reward for being right. Rewards, such as dopamine production in the brain, resulted in joy. Winning was bliss. For some people this made slot machines irresistible. Or changed a virgin into a whore because, as Raffo had come to realise, people are just the chemicals in their brains.
At a little after half past eleven, Raffo arrived home. The house beeped in response to his electronic fob. Timing was crucial. Susan had to be medicated at regular intervals to keep her spindle cells primed. Long and thin and able to transmit electrical signals forty times faster than any other neuron, spindle cells conveyed emotion across the entire brain. Telling the brain how to feel about what it saw. Raffo had hijacked Susan’s network of spindle cells and was pumping her dopamine transmitters for all they were worth.
In the back room, Susan’s chair was empty. Raffo closed the door, walked over to the chair, and stared at it. No Susan. Not in her chair. Not in the room at all.
Frozen in place, unable to make sense of the situation, Raffo looked round, but it was a small room with limited options for hide and seek. He walked over to the window and examined the frame. It was shut tight as usual; the dust on the Venetian blinds undisturbed.
He plonked himself down on the chair and took in the room. Nothing presented itself as an obvious escape route. The only way in or out was the door – which must have been what she used.
Raffo spun round and brought up the camera surveillance system on the computer. He flicked through each view: No sign of her in the front bedroom. Nothing to note in the box room. Bathroom unmolested. Downstairs front room – nothing. Kitchen – deserted. He checked the room he was in, just in case. Just him.
Only one room didn’t have cameras installed, the room where Raffo slept. He launched himself from the chair and ran out. He bounded up the stairs and into the back bedroom. Empty.
He couldn’t understand it. He stood by the window and stared over the rooftops to clear his mind. He looked down and saw Susan standing in the garden. It took a moment for it to make sense. Sometimes, when he unlocked the front door, he automatically unlocked the back door. A problem with the wiring he needed to fix. He let out a sigh of relief and went down to get her.
At the same time he opened the back door and saw no one in the garden, he heard the front door slam. Damn, she was a slippery one.
He raced out the front, to the gate at the bottom of the path. Nothing moved in either direction. Unless she was hiding behind a parked car, she had disappeared. Again.
A quick look back at the house told him where she was. The front door next to his hung wide open. She was home.
It didn’t take long to find her. In the front room, staring at the blank walls. Raffo had never been in there before, but it looked a bit lacking in accoutrements. Some people took minimalism too far.
He heard a yelp and rushed over to where Susan stood by a pile of black bags stacked in one corner. All sorts of odds and sods sticking out of them. Susan held out a bleeding finger.
In her other hand, she had her clutch purse, the one Raffo had hidden in the cabinet under the sink. Contents: lipstick, compact, tissues and house keys. He took the bag from her and used a tissue to stop the bleeding, after getting few drops on the floor. Might prove to be useful.
She looked at him and said, ‘Daddy, I need the toilet.’
With one hand on her shoulder and another under a limp elbow, he guided her through the front door, easing it shut, and back into his house as quickly as possible. He checked over his shoulder to make sure no one had seen them and found the old man from the bottom of the road, gawking at him. His dog sniffed the bottom of Raffo’s gate. Not knowing what to do, Raffo nodded. The old man winked at him and continued on his way. Raffo closed the door and made a mental note to deal with it later.
Inside, Susan had wandered down the hall and into the kitchen. Raffo caught up with her, then steered her through the door next to the fridge. The downstairs loo had been designed for a frail and feeble woman who could no longer manage the stairs, with metal bars on each side.
Susan dropped her knickers and hoisted her dress up around her waist. Raffo averted his gaze, although there was little he could do to avoid hearing the thunderous torrent that issued forth. He opened the fridge and removed a flask of liquid distilled from the multitude of pills left by the last woman to pee in front of him.
Raffo prepared the next dose. He would have to update his timetable. Susan’s behaviour was not what he had expected. She was way ahead of schedule.
The alley ran along the back of the parade of shops and came out further down the High Street. Colin peeked round the corner to make sure the coast was clear, and then stepped out as inconspicuously as someone in bright red pantaloons can. Another victory for the man with a plan.
‘Excuse me, sir,’ said a voice from behind him. Colin turned to find two pink faces under peaked caps with checkerboard bands, the word POLICE printed across their luminescent vests.
‘Yeah?’ Colin tried to sound casual, vainly willing back the tide of warmth rushing into his cheeks.
The constable held out his hand. ‘Can I give you this?’
Colin took the glossy pamphlet offered to him. It provided information on registering mobile phone serial numbers with the police as a security measure. The leaflet contained a short questionnaire and a form to fill in with the relevant details. Colin found it hard to focus on the tiny words in front of him. ‘How does it work?’ he found himself asking in a quavering voice.
The constable looked into Colin's eyes with a penetrating gaze and took the leaflet out of Colin's hand, opened it out and started reading it. The other policeman, a lanky man with a wispy moustache, peered over his partner’s shoulder, mouthing the words as he read. Colin waited, wishing he had just said thanks and left it at that.
‘Ah yes,’ the constable said, handing the leaflet back. ‘What happens, you see, is once you give us the serial number of your phone, we put it on our database, that's like a big computer, and if, in the future, we happen to stop and search a suspicious type, I think you know the sort I mean,’ he paused to exchange lifted eyebrows with his colleague, ‘and they have what looks like a stolen phone on their person, then we can identify it as yours, if it is such, and Bob's your uncle.’
‘Clara Cooke's your aunt,’ said the lanky one from behind.
Colin wondered what a stolen phone looked like. ‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘I'll fill it out when I get home.’
The two policemen nodded in unison and went on their way. Colin watched them disappear around the next corner. The leaflet trembled in his hand. Colin was in no state to sort out his life. How could he mount a robust defence of his innocence if he couldn’t even hold a simple conversation without acting like a guilty child? He had to stop following the rules and hoping things would sort themselves out. He scrunched up the leaflet into a ball and threw it on the ground.
Then he picked it up and went looking for a bin.