by Antony Wootten
I pressed the accelerator and felt the Volvo surge forwards, the windscreen wipers slashing their way through sheets of rain like a Machete through dense undergrowth. I realised I was sweating. This was insane! I never lost my head like this, not when I was in the forces and not in my... more recent work. I had to get a fucking grip. The narrow road curved beneath a crag and I felt the car twitch as the tyres skittered slightly on the wet tarmac. I glanced at the clock as the car straightened, and I opened up the power again, pressing forwards towards the town. I had less than eight minutes.
On the passenger seat, the knife lay, still wrapped in the blood-soaked cloth. In the darkness, I couldn’t even tell whether or not it had stained the seat, but, seeing a straight stretch of road before me, I grabbed the bundle and stuffed it into the glove compartment. I’d have to clear up any mess later on. There was no time right now. Close-up hits always took it out of me; it was much simpler to kill from a distance, with a gun. But my last hit, just ten minutes ago, had become unexpectedly complicated. I’d had to get right up close, and open his throat. I hadn’t had chance to prepare for the mess. Normally, I’d have had a fresh set of clothes in the car, but not today. That was clumsy, especially given where I had to go next. If there was blood on my clothes, it would give me away.
I had just four minutes now, and my heart was actually thundering. I had to clear my head or I’d mess the whole thing up. There was so much riding on it; I’d already let the boss down more than once recently. I had to get this one right.
Around me now, the town streaked by. A red light; I ran it. A horn; I gave them the finger and threw the car round a corner. A lorry; I hit the brake hard, bracing my back against the seat as the ABS kicked in and I guided the car between lorry and bus... Several more frantic manoeuvres as I hurtled deeper into the town’s sprawl. At last, the tower block. But as I slowed, I saw the familiar black hatchback pulling into the block’s private car park ahead of me. It was him. Slipping lower in my seat, I sped past the entrance and round the next corner. Christ, what was I going to do now? I had to get up to the flat before him. That was the plan. It had all been worked out so carefully.
The tyres squealed as I turned another corner, and brought the car to a halt behind the flats. Double yellows; it didn’t matter.
I almost dropped the key as I switched off the ignition and flung open the door. I had to compose myself. This was ridiculous! I was practically panicking. I grabbed the package from the back seat, and the crow bar, and hurried towards the tall building, the package tucked under my jacket to keep it out of the rain. I knew I couldn’t use the front door; I’d blow the whole thing if I was spotted now. So I scaled the wire fence and hurried round the side of the tower block.
With a few frantic jerks on the crowbar, I forced open the fire exit and hurried inside. I flung the crowbar into the dark space beneath the stairs and I could still hear the ringing of metal on concrete when I reached the second floor. I paused for breath, remembering a time when I’d have climbed a tower block stairwell without breaking a sweat. Thank God I was only heading for the fourth floor.
When at last I arrived, I was gasping for air, but I didn’t have time to recover. I eased open the fire-door and peered into the space beyond, where the two heavily graffitied lift doors stood side by side. I heard the soft chime which told me one lift was arriving, and without any further hesitation I slipped past and round the corner. Behind me, the lift wheezed open, and voices spilled out. I ran the length of the corridor, fumbling in my pocket for the key the boss had given me yesterday along with the words, “Let me down again and I’ll fucking kill you.” I managed to slip it in the lock, glancing behind me at the corner I’d just come round. The corridor was still empty, but would only be so for another second or two.
I suddenly remembered to give the four-beat knock, just in case; then, I pushed the door open and slipped into the darkness of the flat, clicking it shut behind me.
“It’s me,” I hissed into the darkness. “Stay down.”
“Bloody ‘ell, Mike,” came a voice. I couldn’t see him but I knew it was Tim, my oldest friend. We’d served in the Middle East together, seen plenty of action there. “Cuttin’ it a bit fine aren’t you? We saw ‘em pull up!”
“Shut up,” I said. “They’re right behind me.”
I made straight for the pale glow of the kitchen area, slamming my shin into the unseen corner of a coffee table and sending something flying.
I limped round the end of the counter which partially divided the lounge from the kitchen, and dropped to the floor, desperately trying to control my breathing. There was someone else nearby, but I couldn’t see who. I heard a few quiet voices and a snigger. I shushed them crossly.
I heard the door open. I removed the package from inside my jacket and put it on the floor beside me. The light came on and I heard his voice, his high, rippling giggle.
And this was the moment I’d come for. It seemed to happen so slowly: I stood, revealing my presence, and gazed at my little boy. He was looking down at the photos I’d knocked off the coffee table, but his mother’s hard, brown eyes were pointing straight at me. And then the room was full of people, appearing from behind the sofa, from the curtains, the bathroom, the kitchen.
“Surprise!” They cacophonied.
David was stunned into silence for a moment, then his gorgeous smile sprang into life as his aunts, uncles, cousins and friends laughed and clapped and all spoke at once.
And he saw me.
“Dad!” I laughed and moved towards him with my arms wide, and everyone seemed to part for us. He threw himself into my embrace and I whirled him round with delighted enthusiasm. I kissed him and cried out, “Happy birthday, son!” I sat him on the counter top and handed him his present. I hadn’t even had time to get wrapping paper for it; it was still in the packaging it had arrived in. “Here you go,” I said. “Sorry I haven’t wrapped it.” He smiled and tore into it. I looked past him at his mother. She was standing there, arms folded, giving me that ‘I hate you’ look, and now the room was full of excited people who didn’t quite know whether or not it was alright to speak.
“Hello, Boss,” I said. I'd always called her that, even back when things were good between us.
“Don’t call me that, Mike,” she warned.
David pulled his new football top from the package. ”Thanks, Dad,” he said.
“That’s alright, son,” I grinned. “Tell you what,” I said, as I took off my jacket and loosened my tie, “work’s been going pretty well recently.” That was as much for his mother’s ears as his. And, if I’m to be honest, everyone else’s too. “I’ll take you shopping tomorrow, maybe get you that bike you wanted.” Behind David, the boss sighed and shook her head. Nothing was ever good enough for her.
“Dad,” David said, but I was busy out glaring the boss, and enjoying the spell we had cast over the rest of the people in the room. “Dad,” David said again, but I had just noticed the way Tim had moved across next to her, and she’d given him that warm, welcoming look she used to give me, and everyone seemed to be staring at me. “Dad.”
“What?” I said, instantly regretting the note of anger in my voice, but everyone was staring at me and I was starting to feel paranoid, defensive.
“Why’s your shirt got that red hand print on it?”