I hammer on the front door with my fist and press the doorbell three times. Somebody is coming down the stairs. A dark male shape behind the nineteen-eighties frosted glass. A muttered curse and a key turning in the lock. The man who opens the door is tall, slim, and little more than a kid.
He looks at me and I know what he sees, and that’s fine. He sees what I want him to see. He sees the cauliflower ear and the long-ago broken nose, and he thinks I’ve been in a few scraps. Correct, son. Well spotted. I could have gotten the nose fixed years ago, but it serves a purpose. It tells people something about me, and saves me the hassle of proving it the hard way. So, when I say, “I’m here for Michelle,” he doesn’t speak the arguments and questions that occur to him. Without opening the door any wider or taking his eyes off mine, he turns his head slightly and calls out to her. She comes down the stairs, barefoot, nervous, curious, and when she sees me in the porch she sighs and turns back.
To me, she says “I need a minute.”
To him, she says “It’s alright, he works for my dad.”
He gives me another once-over and steps back and opens the door but I have no interest in going inside. That might lead to conversation, and we’re in a hurry. Two minutes later, Michelle comes down the stairs again and kisses him goodbye, making a big production out of it, and whispers something to him that doesn’t do anything to ease the scowl on his face, and then we walk to my car and get in.
“Something wrong with your phone?” I ask.
She ignores the question. “Who told you where I was?”
“Who do you think?”
“Rachel,” she says, and when I don’t respond, she tries another guess. “Susan?”
I pull out from the kerb and file the names away for future reference. If I have to chase her down again, I’ll start with Rachel and Susan. In fact, nobody told me where to find her. I saw her in her dad’s house yesterday evening. She was dressed to go out, and I knew there was a boyfriend in the picture from the cagey way she answered Red’s questions. It took me two hours this morning to find out who the boyfriend is and where he lives. Finding people is my talent and it’s what Red employs me for. Often they don’t want to be found, so it’s difficult. They’ve borrowed from Red, or they’ve bought from him, or they’ve stolen from him. The last group are the ones that really don’t want to be found, because if Red gives the word, they might never be found again. With civilians like Michelle, it’s easy. Their social media is like a trail of breadcrumbs.
So, we’re driving, and we’re not talking much, which is good, because I can concentrate on not being followed. I’ve seen her being flirty with Red’s other guys, Gerry in particular, but with me it’s different. Probably another advantage of my boxer’s mug. She’s not a kid any more, and I don’t want Red getting the wrong idea. He’s a protective father. That’s why I’m not going to tell him about the barman she spent the night with. I’d be expected to go back and express Red’s disapproval to him. I’d have to express it on his fingers, his ribs, his legs, and I can do without that. After a while, she looks up from her phone and stares out the window.
“Are you not taking me home?” she asks.
“No. The Hilton. Your ma and your and sister are already there.”
“What’s after happening?”
I say nothing. She thinks it for a second, and then starts typing something into her phone, her thumbs a blur.
“Don’t text anyone,” I say, a little more abruptly than I intended.
I glance over and see that she’s scrolling through a news app. She finds the story that I knew would be there. A sensational headline. A photo. Fragments of windscreen, scattered on a street like bloody teeth. Another car, the getaway vehicle, burned out and abandoned somewhere close to the first. A comment from a local who says that everybody’s in shock and that it’s a good area and that nothing like this ever happened around here before. No name released yet, just a man’s age enclosed in two brackets and now he’s never going to get any older.
“Who was it?” she asks.
I assume she means the victim, not the shooters. “Someone your dad knows. A business acquaintance.”
She has known about Red’s business since she was fourteen, so I expect her to scoff at the euphemism, but she just bites a fingernail. Probably relieved it’s not Red who got shot. Probably.
“What’s going to happen now?” she asks. “They’re going to keep coming after us?”
Us. Them and us. She’s been rebelling against Red for as long as I’ve known her, but now it’s ‘them and us’.
“No, your dad’s going to take care of it. He told me to get you to safety first.”
A few minutes later, we drive into the underground carpark of the hotel. Gerry is pacing in the shadows near the lift. I can tell it’s him from his walk. He always moves like he’s listening to a song that nobody else can hear. James Brown, maybe. Something funky. I tap the horn once to get his attention. He stoops to peer at us, one hand shielding his eyes from my headlights and the other deep in the pocket of his coat. I drive to him, slowly, so as not to spook him, and lower my window.
“Any word?” he asks.
“Nothing. You hear anything?”
He shakes his head. I turn to Michelle, but she’s already out of the car and slamming the door behind her. She has Red’s temperament. I watch in the rearview as she clomps around the back of the car in last night’s high-heels. Thanks for bringing me to the hotel. You’re welcome, Michelle, don’t mention it.
Gerry says “I’ll text Red and tell him you’re on the way, yeah?”
“Yeah.” As I drive away, he hotsteps it over to the lift where Michelle is waiting.
It takes me fifteen minutes to get to the garage that Red is using as a staging post. There’s a tracksuited young fella near the gate, pretending to be waiting for a bus, but really he’s watching for the cops, and watching for the opposition, a mobile phone in one hand.
Inside, there is just Red and the Brady brothers. I don’t know the brothers too well. Red only uses them for a particular type of job. They’re his rapid-reaction force. His emergency response unit. The younger one is holding a funnel in the mouth of a two-liter plastic milk bottle, and the older one, Frank, is pouring petrol into it from a can. They’re both wearing hi-vis jackets and builders’ boots, but there’s an automatic pistol on the workbench so I know they’re not about to build somebody a new kitchen. Red is kneeling in front of an Audi I haven’t seen before, changing the licence plate. He does a double-take when I walk in.
“You found her?” he asks.
“Yeah, I left her at the hotel.”
“When?” He fishes his mobile out of his pocket and checks the time. “She wasn’t there three minutes ago.” He thumbs the screen and turns away, raising the phone to his ear. I pull out my mobile and I call Gerry’s number. Voicemail. I hang up and dial again. Answer, you bastard.
Red is talking to somebody. “You’re sure? Alright, call you back.”
He walks over to me. He’s still holding the screwdriver that he was using to fix the licence plate. The Brady boys are standing up and taking an interest, the petrol can forgotten for now.
Red says “That was her ma. Michelle’s not there.”
He talks over me. “Tony’s there. He hasn’t seen her either.”
“I left her with Gerry. In the hotel carpark.”
“With Gerry?” Red’s voice is shaking now, and so is the screwdriver in his fist. “What’s Gerry got to do with it?” he shouts. “I told you to find her, and bring her to her ma, and her sister, in the hotel.” The tip of the screwdriver jerks closer to my eye, as if to emphasise each point. “Now where the fuck is she?”
He grabs my jacket with one hand and twists it. A fleck of spittle lands on my chin. I reach back to steady myself against the workbench, and my fingers brush against the cold metal of the gun.