Read a man alone epub format

Authors: David Siddall

a man alone

 

Table of Contents

1—Sunday

2—Monday

3—Tuesday

4—Wednesday

5—Thursday

6—Friday

7—Saturday

8—Two Weeks Later

 

A MAN ALONE is a Full Dark City Press publication
Electronic publication June 2014
Copyright © 2014, Full Dark City Press

All rights reserved. No part of this electronic book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by electronic or mechanical means including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Cover Image: Eric Beetner

Ebook Design:
JW Manus

 

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to CJ Edwards and Chris Rhatigan at
Full Dark City Press
for their belief, support and hard work in seeing this project to fruition. I am forever in your debt.

Eric Beetner for his incredible artwork.

And to Ann, my personal soundboard and proofreader—for putting up with me all these years.

 

 

 

 

To Dad
 
A MAN
ALONE
David Siddall
 
1—
S
UNDAY

I
N THE END IT
was her crying that woke him.

Somewhere in his subconscious John Doyle heard the key in the lock, her foot upon the stair and her bedroom door open and close. But it was the soft whisper of tears that finally stirred him. He looked at the clock on his bedside table. It was 2:15. For a little while he lay there, wondering if Josie would wake and go to her daughter. She wouldn’t. The vodka drunk the night before meant she would sleep till morning. Doyle sighed. He liked his beer but Josie—Josie could drink for England. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he sat up and listened. An alley dog barked somewhere in the distance. Another joined and their conversation roamed back and forth until a harsh voice ushered them to silence. Still he could hear her sobs permeating the thin wall between them. There was nothing else for it. Doyle blew air between his teeth and slipped from the bed.

As he moved, Josie rolled in to his space. He watched the contours of her face tighten then relax before she settled back and her breathing once again returned to normal. A cool breeze shook the blinds. Doyle shivered. He reached behind the door for the dressing gown Josie had bought him for his birthday, then padded across the landing. He paused then tapped on her door. “April.” Since leaving Ireland, Doyle had cultivated a neutral tone the better to blend in. But at this early hour his voice growled with the harsh inflections of his birth. He cleared his throat and tried again. “April.”

The crying stopped. Then a small, frightened voice said, “Don’t come in.”

April was seventeen and for the first time since he had lived there, Doyle ignored the request. He pushed open the door. Inside it was dark. Yellow streetlight strayed through the curtains creating pools of light that highlighted the photographs on the bedside table and the latest Vampire romance on the shelf in the corner. April sat in the shadow at the end of the bed. Her hands were clasped, her body stiff, and her small round face stared in surprise at his unwelcome intrusion. She tried to tell him, she tried to say she was okay, that he shouldn’t have come in and should go away. But all that exited her mouth was a soul-wracking sob that burst from somewhere deep inside. She buried her face in her hands and started to cry all over again. Doyle swallowed. How small, how lost she looked and he sat on the bed beside her, put his arm around her shoulder.

It wasn’t usual. Since taking up with Josie, Doyle had maintained a distance that suited them both. Their relationship was based on a respect that honored each other’s privacy. They got on, Doyle would say they even liked each other, but this was different. Doyle sensed April’s need. She reciprocated by burying her head in his chest. As her tears fell, Doyle rubbed her back with the flat of his hand. It was the closest they had ever been and Doyle felt a warmth, the like of which he had never known before, flood through him. As April’s sobs began to subside, he held her away the better to see.

“Boyfriend trouble?”

She nodded and her blond hair fell across her face shielding it from view.

Doyle sniffed, he had seen them together once, had seen the boy hanging round the corner shops. Gerard Burns, Burnsie to his mates, a tall gangly kid with weasel eyes. Doyle didn’t like him—wondered what April saw in the boy and after watching the Peter Jackson film, called him an Orc. Josie had laughed. Doyle hadn’t meant it to be funny. But he knew better than to involve himself in teenage love affairs and decided to let nature take its course. He just hoped April would see the truth in the boy before too long.

“You know,” he said, “things are never quite so bad in the morning.” He brushed hair away from her face so he could see her eyes. Doyle’s hand froze. Beneath the curve of April’s cheek and against the pale smoothness of skin, a blemish, a dark stain marred the whiteness of her neck. She tried to shake her head and let her hair fall back into place, but it was too late—Doyle had seen. He placed two fingers beneath her chin and turned her head. Bruising, a series of finger-marks spotted both sides of her neck.

Doyle rose from the bed and switched on the bedside lamp. The silver stud in April’s lip flashed as she turned her head from Doyle and the light. Doyle took her hands and turned them palms up. She squirmed but he held on and traced the contours of her skin with his eyes. More bruising, fingerprints stretched from wrist to elbow. Doyle felt his stomach tighten. “Did he do this?”

April didn’t answer. He tugged on her hands and forced her to look at him.

April nodded.

“Did he hit you?”

April sucked in air and shook her head. “No, we were arguing and he just,” she scrunched up her face as if the memory were too much, “pushed me away.”

“And?” Doyle released his grip.

April shrugged and rubbed her arms. “Held me tight.”

“Too tight?”

“A little.”

“And put his hands around your neck?”

She wrinkled her nose. “No,” she lied. “Just,” she touched her throat and slipped her gaze to look at Doyle, “held me.” Her tear-streaked eyes held his, wanting him to believe.

Doyle expelled a breath and squeezed her shoulder. “Okay,” he said and kissed the top of her head. “Try and get some sleep.”

April nodded and watched as he went to the door. “John.”

He turned to look.

“Don’t tell Mum.”

For a moment he held her gaze then nodded. “Okay,” he said, “I won’t.” Then he tilted his chin toward her. “You can do that in the morning.”

 

D
OYLE SAT AT THE
kitchen table with a cup of black coffee in front of him. He yawned and rubbed a hand over his eyes. He hadn’t slept well. The thought of
that
boy with his hands on April burned in his head like sulphur. Josie stood at the sink, washing the dirty glasses from the night before. Her hair was lank, her face drawn. She wore blue polka dot pyjamas with a white housecoat thrown over the top. Josie hadn’t bothered to get dressed. Doyle looked up from his mug. She probably wouldn’t bother for the rest of the day.

Back in the day, Josie MacDonald had been a real looker, a woman who had what it takes and knew that she had it. That’s what people told him anyway. And in the form of her face and the arch of neck, Doyle could still see a shadow of that former self. But that was a long time ago. Yet when they met there was still something there, a vitality and impish spirit that drew him to her. They had their pasts, their histories, but it didn’t matter. They drifted together like flotsam on a storm-tossed sea. But recently Josie looked tired, frayed around the edges, and the free spirit that first attracted him seemed sluggish and worn down. Perhaps they needed some excitement in their lives.

“I never heard her come in last night.”

“Not surprised with what you drank.” Josie’s shoulders arched back as the air soured between them. Doyle added quickly, “2:15.”

Still with her back to him, she nodded and rinsed a mug under the cold water.

“Don’t know what she does till then.”

“She’s your daughter.”

Josie banged the mug down on the draining board. She banged it so hard Doyle winced. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Knowing better than argue Doyle took a mouthful of coffee. She was still staring at him when April crept down the stairs. Sheepishly, she poked her head around the door and bit her lip. Josie looked at her and frowned.

“What’s the matter love?”

April met Doyle’s eyes and swallowed. She knew what she had to do but didn’t like it, didn’t like it one little bit. Doyle took it as his cue to leave. Lifting his jacket from the back of the chair, he said, “I’ll get the papers.”

 

J
OSIE LIVED SOUTH OF
the city, a working class district of narrow roads and red bricked terraces. A parade of shops lined the nearby street. Among the tanning salons, burger bars and discount stores, there were plenty of shops where Doyle could have bought his newspaper. But he didn’t. Instead, Doyle walked in the opposite direction. He went to Pete’s, the corner shop where Burnsie and his mates hung out.

It was early and the streets were empty. Most of the houses still had their curtains drawn. Before he crossed into Cockburn Street, Doyle paused and looked over the river. It was gray and overcast, but from his elevated position he could see clear across. For a moment he paused, watching a pair of tugs shepherd a giant tanker into its berth. Turning his head, he saw something else. Dressed in black track suits, Gerard Burns and two of his cronies lounged against the shop wall eating crisps. Doyle set his jaw and walked toward them.

As he drew close, the boy nearest looked up and saw him. He nudged Burnsie with his elbow. Burnsie narrowed his eyes. As he recognized Doyle, his shoulders stiffened. An instant later the boy relaxed, shrugged in response to a whispered warning and slinked back against the wall. He tracked Doyle until he was nearly upon them, then turned his back and placed a cigarette in his mouth. The others joined him.

Doyle waited. He heard a whisper, a giggle, but still he didn’t move, surprising himself at how easy it was to slip into a role he thought long forgotten. A light was struck and the nauseous, sickly-sweet aroma of the boy’s spliff drifted up from their huddle. Eventually Burnsie turned his blank face on him. Doyle stared into his weasel-slit eyes. “I want to speak to you.”

“What about?”

“You know.” Doyle tipped his head to the corner and away from his companions. Burnsie shrugged and followed Doyle. He cocked an eyebrow at his mates. He could handle anything the old get wanted.

He was still smiling when Doyle grabbed his neck and pushed him against the wall. The air caught in his throat and Doyle came close and kept his voice low so there would be no mistaking his words. “Leave April alone.”

Burnsie couldn’t move. His wide, dilated eyes stared at Doyle waiting his next move. Nothing happened. Seconds passed. Then sensing idle threats was all the man had to offer, a thin unsavoury smile spread across his lips. “Or what?” he said and his mouth twitched.

Doyle said nothing. Slowly he released his grip and stepped back. Burnsie loosened his shoulders, stood square to Doyle. He was seventeen, tall, and could stare into Doyle’s face without raising his eyes. So he did. He pushed his face into Doyle’s space so they were only inches apart. Doyle saw the arrogance of a boy who had walked through life doing exactly as he pleased, never once reaping the consequences of his actions.

“I do what I like when I like.”

“Not with my daughter.”

“Your daughter,” Burnsie sneered. “Since when?”

Doyle hit him. He swept the back of his hand hard across the boy’s face.

Burnsie’s head spun away from the blow. His jaw sagged and his eyes widened. It was so quick, so unexpected, that he didn’t react. He looked at Doyle and with trembling fingers, probed his burning cheek.

Doyle saw the other boys peer round the corner but ignored them. If they were going to jump him, they would have done so already. He stepped closer and put his index finger to the boy’s throat. “I’m telling you to leave April alone. You leave her be or something bad will happen.” He pushed until the boy began to choke. Then he dropped his hand and turned away. He sidestepped the boys on the corner, went into the shop.

They had disappeared by the time he left the newsagent. Doyle was calm, the brief burst of adrenaline gone as soon as he had turned his back on the boy. Others he knew retained their aggression until it found some violent or sexual outlet. But Doyle was a man who knew how to control himself. In the past it had been part of his armory, a necessity of survival, and it earned him the respect of his peers. As he stepped away from the shop, he took a deep breath and did a quick search of the street. He didn’t expect any hassle but it paid to be vigilant. And that was something else he had learned in the past.

Doyle strolled across the road, unfolded the newspaper and began to read.

Engrossed in the back pages, he was passing the boarded up Beresford Arms when a black SUV swept past and pulled up at the curb. He stopped and raised his eyes. The man who stepped from the driver’s side had presence—the street seemed to shrink around him. Doyle ran his eyes over him: 5’10”—stocky, faded tattoos, and biceps that bulged inside the sleeves of his white, F.C.U.K T-shirt. He had a diagonal, two-inch scar on his neck where a glass or knife had once slashed him and mean hard eyes—eyes that had Doyle square in their sights.

Moving like a beast of the mountain, he walked round the bonnet and leaned against the wheel arch. Doyle would not have been surprised to see him beat his chest with his fists. The guy took up a stance, arms folded, legs apart and eyeballed Doyle. Doyle had been in enough situations to know when trouble called. And this one was shouting at the top of its voice.

The man tipped his chin toward him. “You got a problem?”

Doyle shook his head. “None that I can think of.”

The big man blew air between his teeth. It was an exaggerated exasperated action, and when he addressed Doyle, it was as if he were speaking to a stupid child. “My boys tell me you’ve got a beef with one of them.”

“Your boys?”

He jerked his head behind him, back toward the corner shop. “They work for me. Fetch and carry, that sort of thing.”

Doyle knew exactly what sort of thing.

“Young Gerard says you fronted him.” He opened his hands, palms outwards in a magnanimous gesture of goodwill. “You got a problem, then you come to me and I’ll sort it. Understand?”

Doyle didn’t answer. He looked at the big man and started to roll the newspaper in his hand. “Not really.”

The big man frowned. He wasn’t used to having his word questioned. He opened his mouth then looked hard at Doyle. His head tilted to one side. “You’re not from round here are you?”

“That’s right. I’m not.”

The big man waited and when Doyle didn’t elaborate, he eased himself away from the SUV and stood in front of him. “I’m Barry Wood.”

Somewhere in his head the name registered, but in truth it meant nothing.

Doyle shrugged.

Barry Wood’s face clouded. “Look it’s like this,” he said keeping his voice low and reasonable—for that’s what he was, a reasonable man. “You touch one of my lads and it’s like touching me. It shows a lack of respect.” He opened his hands like it was a given fact, just the way of the world. And all the while he watched Doyle twirl the newspaper round and round in his hands.

Wood smiled. He prided himself on being able to see the nature of men. Some men acted hard and fronted up. But a look, the right word said in the right way, sent them crumbling to dust. A few men would never back down. Wood had met a few, the alpha males of society. Their epitaphs were written in blood across the bars and pavements of the city. But most men were weak, never looked you in the eye and allowed themselves to be walked all over. This man was one of them—an outsider he could do whatever he wanted with.

He stepped back giving the man room to think. “Now, like I said before, what’s the problem?”

Doyle shook his head. The paper was now so tightly coiled that it was a rigid, cylindrical tube. “Like I said before, there is no problem.”

Wood took a deep breath. The guy was an idiot. He jabbed a finger hard into Doyle’s chest, so hard Doyle was forced to take a step back. “Look, dickhead. Come to me and I’ll sort it. Otherwise, I’ll sort you.”

Doyle glanced into the big man’s eyes. Nine-tenths of power lay in intimidation. Doyle knew this, had used it himself in the past. He also knew what Barry Wood didn’t—that he was predictable, each word and move choreographed like a high school musical and that the element of surprise lay with him. He glanced down the street, saw Burnsie and his mates leaning against a low brick wall, watching, waiting, laughing at him like he was some soft cunt from the sticks. He turned back and looked the big man right in the eye. “No, Mr. Wood,” he said, “I don’t think you understand.” And in an underhand movement Wood never saw, Doyle jabbed the rolled up paper hard into his gut. Wood folded in the middle as the air exploded from him. Before he had a chance to recover, Doyle kicked out, bringing the flat of his heel into sharp contact with Wood’s knee. As the big man’s face contorted in agony, his leg buckled and he fell forward. Doyle was waiting and snap-punched him twice in the face.

And that was all.

Doyle backed away. Wood lay sprawled in the road shaking his head, wondering what the fuck happened. But it was over. Wood was in no fit state to continue the brawl. Doyle picked up his paper, brushed the dirt from the cover, and turned his back. He needed to hurry. Josie would have his breakfast on the table and it wouldn’t do to be late.

 

B
UT THE ONLY THING
on the table was Josie’s folded arms. As he walked in she glanced at the wall clock. It looked like she had been counting the minutes until he returned.

“D’you know about this?” She was smoking and ash from her cigarette fell on the table.

He acted the jerk and shrugged helplessly.

Josie stubbed her cigarette in the ashtray and tipped her chin to the stairs.

“April.”

Doyle tossed the paper on the table and took a deep breath. May as well get it over with. “Yeah,” he said. “I heard her come in and she told me what happened.”

Josie speared him with a look. “Why didn’t you wake me, why didn’t you go and look for the twat?” She squirmed in the seat. “Little bastard.” She pulled open a pack of cigarettes and pushed one into her mouth. Once, twice, three times she tried to light it with a cheap, plastic lighter, but a tiny spark was all it emitted. She flung the lighter across the kitchen.

“I’m not having it. Not off him or anyone.” She was working herself up, bringing her anger to the boil, and God help anyone who got in her way. Doyle had seen it before, knew in normal circumstances it was best to steer clear, to go for a long walk or down to the pub until she had calmed down. She rose from the chair and thrust it back with her legs. It scraped across the floor. “I’ll sort the cunt out.”

Doyle grabbed her wrist. It was small and thin and his hand easily circled it.

She twisted, trying to break free and bared her teeth. Doyle suppressed a smile. He couldn’t help it. When Josie MacDonald got riled, the world had better watch out. He said it was the hot blood of her forefathers bubbling through her veins. She said it was living with a shit like him. Doyle almost wished he had let her deal with Burnsie. Getting to him first had probably done the boy a favor.

He waited until she stopped struggling then held her gaze. “I’ve seen him. He was outside the shop and I’ve had a word.”

Josie pulled at his hands. “A word, he wants more than a fucking word.”

Doyle tightened his grip until she winced. “It’s done. He won’t bother April again.”

“It’s not done as far as I’m concerned.”

Doyle tugged on Josie’s wrist. Occasionally he had to force the point home, make sure she understood. “It ends here.” Doyle stared into her eyes. The fire dimmed, and Josie took a deep breath. Reluctantly, she nodded.

“Well he’d better keep away,” she said. “Or he’ll have me to deal with.” Doyle released his grip and she rubbed her wrist. She looked at the circle of red where Doyle had held her. “That hurt you know.”

Doyle shrugged. “Sorry.”

She mumbled beneath her breath and went to the sink. “Want a cuppa?”

Doyle breathed a sigh of relief. Drama over. “Tea would be good.”

She turned her back. He heard water running into the kettle.

With the paper flat on the table, Doyle sat down and tried to smooth out some of the creases. He waited until the kettle began to rumble then glanced up at Josie.

“Don’t know a bloke called Barry Wood, do you?”

 

J
OSIE WENT BALLISTIC.
“Barry Wood,” she screamed. “You’ve been fighting with Barry Wood?”

Doyle hid behind the paper. Once or twice he lifted his head thinking to stem the abuse, but it was hopeless. An overpowering silence eventually made him peer over the paper’s edge.

Josie had stopped shouting and was waiting for him to speak. He didn’t.

“I said what were you fighting over?”

Doyle folded the paper, laid it on the table and waited to see if she had calmed enough for him to explain. “It was the boy,” he said. Josie frowned but before she could speak he waved a hand, “April’s fella. After we had words, this Barry Wood got involved.”

Josie’s frown deepened. “Why?”

“Said that he was one of his boys. Said I should have gone to him.” He shrugged, puzzled while Josie bit her lip and nodded. It made sense to her.

“That’s all we need. Burnsie’s in with Barry Wood’s mob. Shit.”

Doyle sat there waiting for her to elaborate. When she didn’t, he gestured helplessly. “So, who is Barry Wood?”

“Someone you don’t want to know.”

“Bit late for that.”

Josie took a deep breath. “He’s local. Never worked in his life but owns three pubs and the bookies on Mill Street. Got something to do with Fortress Taxis too.” She came forward and placed her hands on the table where Doyle was sitting. “Thing is,” she said, “he’s got people working for him. And not just those kids.” She leaned forward to emphasize her words. “They’re bad people, John.”

Turning her back on Doyle, she began to pace the kitchen. Josie’s mind went into overdrive. “Best thing,” she said, “is for me to find out what’s going on.” She stopped and looked at Doyle. “See if he wants,” she narrowed her eyes, “to see you.”

Three small words but loaded with intent.

Doyle arched an eyebrow. He had made his stand and now, as far as he was concerned, it was over. “Don’t worry about it Josie.” He reopened the newspaper and spread it out on the table. “Everything will be fine. Besides,” he said, “it wasn’t really a fight.”

“No?”

“I only hit him once.” Doyle looked up and closed one eye, thinking. “Twice. It’s just men’s stuff, Josie, a misunderstanding. I’m sure Barry Wood is man enough to appreciate that.”

A low hiss of air escaped Josie’s mouth. “You don’t know Barry Wood.”

Doyle smiled. “Give it a day or two and it’ll be forgotten about.”

Josie looked at him and shook her head. “You don’t get it do you? Barry Wood never forgets anything.”

 
2—
M
ONDAY

D
OYLE HEARD THE DOOR
open and bounce against the inside wall. He groaned as the sound reverberated through his thick head. He stood by the sink, wearing his dressing gown and had just poured a Resolve into a glass of water. A belch worked its way past his lips, and he waited for the hiss of salts to settle before he drank it. Josie shuffled in with the shopping, held her arms out and dropped the bags on the floor. Something split and sugar granules poured from the overturned bag. Doyle met her eyes.
Fuck. Here we go again.
Doyle turned his face to the window and gulped down his medicine. He had a throat like a bear’s arse. And he figured his throbbing head was about to get a whole lot worse.

He had done the usual thing; Sunday roast then a couple of pints in the Southern Cross. But it had been a strange afternoon. He had lived there for five years, but in truth was still an outsider. And for the first time yesterday, Josie’s neighbors and friends made him feel like one. The raised eyes and nods of greeting were the same as always, but there was something beneath the soft smiles and words that puzzled him.

The Cross was a mix of Reds and Bluenoses, and after Saturday’s football, the place was usually alive with the piss-taking and gentle cajoling at one or the other’s expense. And though there was banter and a few cracks, the laughter seemed forced. The bar was blanketed in a brooding consciousness, as if the speaker was aware that a misplaced word or action might be misconstrued and used against him.

Doyle noticed the whispers, the furtive looks in his direction. Within a few minutes, those nearest had sidled away to tables or the ends of the bar, and he found himself drinking alone. Doyle had seen it enough times in the past. The word had gone out. He was persona non grata, a pariah—and God help anyone he was seen with. It was like the old days—every conversation guarded, every bar scanned for a knife or an assassin’s bullet. And it made him sick to remember. Maybe Barry Wood wasn’t such a clown after all.

He left the Cross, jumped a taxi into town, and got hammered in a bar where no one knew his name. It was after midnight when he went home and crawled into bed.

Doyle turned slowly and faced Josie. She had a face like thunder. “I’ve just bumped into Brenda Wood,” she said and pushed a hand through her hair. “Chucked her fucking trolley into me is more like.” Doyle said nothing. “Brenda,” said Josie confirming Doyle’s guess, “is Barry Wood’s wife. She pushed her fucking trolley into me at the co-op.” She rubbed her ankle and flinched when she found the bruised spot.

Doyle waited, but knew exactly where this was going.

“She’s not happy,
he’s
not happy. Told me to tell you he’s waiting to see you.”

“Waiting to see me? You make it sound like a hospital appointment.” Doyle frowned. Perhaps that was not a good analogy.

Josie shook her head and reached for her purse. Inside was a business card.

“Here,” she waved it in front of him, “Brenda gave me this.”

Doyle took it, held it at arms length then brought it closer. Advertising Fortress Taxis, a mobile phone number was scrawled on the back. He lifted his eyes to her.

“Barry’s personal number. She said if you apologize that will be it.”

He looked at her and saw something he had never seen before—she was almost begging him to phone. “And you believe her?” Doyle shrugged and turned away. “It was him that started it.”

“Listen to yourself.” Josie’s voice rose. “You sound like a kid who’s had a fight in the playground.” About to say more, her body sagged with the effort of arguing. She came close and rubbed his arm. “Try and understand. Barry Wood rules this place, has done since he was a kid. He’s a thug, his whole family are. A brother’s in Walton, his dad was killed in a shooting and his sister is doing time for drugs. As for Brenda,” Josie shook her head, “I saw her outside school once, laying into a girl whose son had a fight with her Jay. And that’s only her nephew. She’s like a cat protecting her young that one. They’re bad John, the whole family. Even Jay’s on the payroll now. You really don’t want the Wood family after you.” She squeezed his elbow. “Make the call. Please John.”

Doyle heaved a sigh and pushed the card into the pocket of his dressing gown.

“I’ll think about it,” he said and turned his back on Josie. He was right about one thing though; his headache had grown infinitely worse.

 

I
T HAD BEEN A
long day. Josie had gone to bed early. Doyle sat on his own in the lounge with the TV off and the room in darkness. In his hand was a glass of Jameson’s. He took a sip and looked at the ceiling, up to April’s room where, he presumed, she and her Facebook allies were agreeing in their assessment of him. She hadn’t spoken to him. Doyle closed his eyes. A quiet life was all he wanted and in the last few years had managed to achieve a normality he once thought impossible. It wasn’t perfect, but what was? He kept his head down, worked when he could, and kept himself anonymous. No fuss, no excitement—that was Doyle’s way. It had to be that way.

A humorless smile creased his face. If they could see him now—Brendan Murphy, Shane Gallagher, and the others on the enforcement committee. He had been the man, the one they looked to, the man they said had ice water in his veins. What would they do now? Laugh at his predicament or put a bullet through his head? After what he had done, he guessed it would be the latter.

A crack on the window broke his thoughts. Another followed. Doyle frowned, set his whiskey down and went to the door. For a moment he stood with his ear against the wood. Outside he could hear voices, youthful and exuberant. He jerked it open and stepped out. There were four. He looked but black hoodies obscured their faces. Two were on the far side of the street, guarding their bicycles and pelting the window with stones. Arms poised to throw; they froze when they saw him. The others were closer. They were by the side of the bay window, doing something to the wall. They jumped back, startled by his sudden appearance. There was a metallic clatter on the pavement and he heard a can roll into the gutter. He took a step toward them and a stone hit his chest. Covering their retreat, the boys returned to their fusillade. Doyle ducked and used his hands to shield his face. One whizzed past his head. When he looked again, they had run to their bikes and were already racing down the street. He couldn’t be sure, but swore one was that kid—Burnsie.

Doyle watched the night swallow them before he went back to the hall and switched on the light. Daubed in red paint: Grass lives here.

It was the ultimate insult.

Doyle shook his head. If they knew the truth, they wouldn’t call him a copper’s nark. He touched the slogan. It was still wet but drying fast. If he was quick, he might be able to wash it off. Inside the house there was silence, a cocoon of false safety he knew wouldn’t last.

“What was that?” Josie’s tired voice called from upstairs.

“Nothing,” he said. He could at least give her the night in peace. “I’ll be up in a minute.”

Doyle slumped back in the armchair, slugged his Jameson, and found the business card she had given him hours before. He looked at the number. Reaching for his mobile phone, Doyle made the call.

 
3—
T
UESDAY

D
OYLE WAS AT THE
Lisbon at 2 o’clock the following afternoon. It was the oldest and best known bar in Liverpool’s gay quarter.

Against his better judgement, he’d called Barry Wood. The man wanted an apology. Doyle guessed it wasn’t just an apology he was looking for. Wood suggested, the Southern Cross. Doyle said no. The Lisbon had been his idea. Wood laughed, he didn’t mind. To him, one place was as good as another.

Doyle checked his watch. He had been there an hour and taken his time choosing where to sit. Occupying the basement of a Victorian tenement, little light filtered through the street level windows, leaving much of the room in shadow. He pulled a stool to the bar where he could see the door. A small glass half filled with ice and lime sat on the counter next to him. Only a few tables, those in the quieter corners and wood panelled alcoves, were occupied.

He clocked them soon as they walked in. They didn’t have the demeanor of the Lisbon’s usual clientele. One was squat, stocky and though younger, had the same round pug features as Barry Wood. This, Doyle guessed, would be Barry’s nephew. The other man was taller with a square head that looked like it had been carved from granite. Weathered and pock-marked by some childhood disease, he looked the ‘doing’ type. Doyle grimaced, for he knew exactly what he was there to do.

They stopped in the doorway and swept the room with their gaze before Square-head settled on Doyle. He bent to whisper in the other’s ear and jerked his head toward Doyle. Neither looked comfortable. Doyle guessed gay bars were not on their usual agenda. He took a sip of his drink. Round one to him.

They sauntered over while Doyle ordered a refill of his Caipirinha. That Barry Wood had failed to materialize was not a huge surprise. Public place, violent encounter—perhaps he should credit the man with more intelligence.

Doyle stared straight ahead, kept his eyes on the mirror behind the bar and watched their approach. The smaller man was early twenties, wore a brown leather jacket over a hooded fleece, and almost bounced as he walked. The other wore a casual denim jacket a size too small. They closed in, one either side, hemming him into the bar. Doyle shifted. There wasn’t much room for maneuvering.

Square-head leaned into Doyle’s ear. “Thought we’d find you in a bar for faggots.” He grinned.

“I was expecting Barry Wood,” said Doyle and turned to look at the man. “I wanted him to feel at home.” The grin died. Doyle saw a flicker of something in his eyes that just for a moment registered doubt.

The barman came across and placed Doyle’s drink in front of him. It came with a plastic cocktail mixer to stir the Cachaca into the ice and lime.

The thug dropped his gaze to the glass, smirked, then raised it back to Doyle’s face. “A faggot’s drink for a faggot.”

Doyle sighed and lifted the glass to his lips. The guy didn’t have much of a line in offensive remarks. “Where’s Barry Wood?”

“He don’t waste time on scumbags like you.” He gestured to his younger companion. “We’re here to collect if you know what I mean.”

Doyle glanced over his right shoulder. The other man was there, head tilted to one side, trying to look bad. Living in his uncle’s shadow—he tried too hard.

The young barman, who had remained standing opposite Doyle, chose that moment to intervene. “Gents?” It was an invitation to buy drinks. Barry’s nephew switched his gaze away from Doyle. He looked the boy up and down before his fleshy lips curled into a sneer.

“Fuck off, kid.”

Doyle raised an eyebrow. Yeah, he thought. Trying much too hard.

The barman looked like he had been struck with a cattle prod. His wide eyes looked from one to the other until they settled on Square-head. Was this a joke? When Square-head snarled at him he guessed it wasn’t. He raised his hands and backed off, remembering that somewhere at the back of the bar there were some shelves that needed cleaning.

Square-head grunted and returned his attention to Doyle. He laid a finger on his chest. “So this is how it’s going down. Saturday at nine, you come to the Cross and apologize to Mr Wood personally. Let everyone see you do it.”

“And if I don’t?”

He balled his fist and cracked his knuckles. “Then you get a smack. And then another.” He shook his head. “There’s nothing down for you lad. One way or another, Barry
will
get his apology.”

Doyle lifted the glass to his lips and sipped. The lime was sharp and hadn’t fully mixed with the Brazilian liquor. He placed it back on the counter and began to stir it. “I thought Barry Wood was big enough to meet me on his own.”

“Look, dickhead.” Square-head was loud and the threat in his voice caused several drinkers to look around. Square-head didn’t care. “Barry hasn’t got time for the likes of you.” He pushed his face close to Doyle’s. Doyle turned his head away. The guy’s breath smelled like a garbage dump. “What is it you want—a fucking hiding?”

The young barman had been watching. He had been following events, hoping they would go away. Now it was getting serious, and this was his watch, his first job, the bar entrusted to his keeping. He made a decision. Holding his palms out as they had advised on his training day, he came over to where Doyle sat. “Please gents,” he said. “Take it outside.” He tried to smile, diffuse the situation. He hadn’t yet learned the art of looking the other way.

Square-head leaned over the counter and grabbed the kid by his shirt. He pulled him close, spat in his face. “Will you just fuck off,” and he pushed him back, the force strong enough to send him sprawling to the floor. Square-head turned back to Doyle. Saliva speckled his lips. “Well. What’s it gonna be?” And before Doyle said anything, added, “Remember, you got family.”

Doyle stopped stirring his drink.

“A girl innit?” He leered over Doyle’s shoulder and winked at his companion.

“Pretty thing, so I heard. Be a shame if something were to happen.” There was a sound deep in his throat Doyle recognized as laughter.

Doyle looked at him, at his weather-beaten face, his pig eyes and didn’t hesitate. He tapped the cocktail mixer on the rim of his glass then drove it straight into his face. Square-head squealed, stepped back, brought both hands to his ruined left eye. The plastic rod stuck from it like an arrow. Blood squeezed through his fingers. In the same motion Doyle brought his elbow back and cracked it into the bridge the other man’s nose. Doyle felt it turn to mush. There was a muffled curse behind him.

He stepped off the stool, looked at Square-head. The pain had hit and he staggered away from Doyle, trying to understand what had just happened. “Fuck—fuck,” he cursed anything and everyone. There was little danger there. Doyle turned to his right. Wood’s nephew had recovered quicker than he had expected. Blood flowed from his nose over his lips and down his chin but he bared his red-stained teeth and took a wild swing. Swerving backwards, Doyle avoided the blow, grabbed the boy’s outstretched wrist in his left hand and with his right caught the back of his neck. Using his weight, he turned then slammed his face into the counter. One, two, three times he beat his face into the wood then let him go. The boy slid down the front of the bar and pooled on the floor.

Square-head ripped the plastic rod from his eye and moved his head side to side trying to see Doyle through his one good eye.

“Bastard. Fucking bastard.” He lurched forward, arms outstretched, trying to get his hands on Doyle. As he moved, Doyle sidestepped and struck the big man’s throat with the side of his hand. Square-head choked and sank to his knees gasping for air.

Doyle looked from one to the other. They were finished, both of them. Behind the counter, the barman had raised himself from the floor and stared like he was watching a scene from a movie. Elsewhere, the commotion had caused a mini exodus. The Lisbon’s customers weren’t going to wait for the police. Too many questions, too many inferences in what they were doing in a
gay
bar. They grabbed jackets and briefcases and sloped out the door.

Doyle caught the eye of the boy behind the bar and held up his hands. He shrugged, thought better of saying something stupid, and headed for the exit.

It was raining. Doyle turned up his collar and crossed the road onto Mathew Street. Soon he was lost in the crowd.

 

“S
O THAT’S ABOUT IT.
” Doyle stood by the mantelpiece, idly pushing the china figures on its top with his hand. There was a little Buddha. He picked it up and looked. The fat bastard was laughing at him. Resisting the temptation to hurl the pot-bellied twat into the hearth, Doyle carefully replaced it and faced Josie.