By Jude Ellery
Bet you didn’t realise you’re just one stop away now.
That’s right my friend, just one stop from this city’s heart of darkness where no-one wants to go. Not many know about this place, and fewer still could even find it if they tried, without the proper direction. Funnily enough though it’s those without proper direction who end up there. Now, I’m not suggesting you’re one of them, not for one second… but I do need you to swing by for me, pick something up.
Turn left out the station.
Past the closed-down bakery.
Past the drooping trees in the park that grab at you like beggars’ hands.
Count the arches in the narrow lane. The tenth is missing a lamp and welcomes you with all the warmth of winter.
Lovely, isn’t she?
Windows boarded up with more planks than the Mary Rose. A sign faded into obscurity that used to dance with the wind but now hangs stiff as a stalactite on rusted chains. A heavy wooden door with a small hatch and no handle. The piercing howls of locked-up dogs. The rustling of leaves and empty cans knocking about in the gutter. People know better than to disturb the garbage that falls this way.
You’ve picked the best time to arrive; the mise-en-scène really comes into its element at nightfall, when men in black hats creep up and draw shadows on the floor, then scrub them out silently as they slip inside. Your turn. Knock once and wait. Tell them I sent you.
Just a second. Before you go in, a word of warning. The reason people don’t want to visit is… well, you’ll see for yourself soon enough. But be careful. And try to forget what you see inside.
Ushered through the imposing wooden door, in here it’s scarcely an improvement on the sombre exterior. A cold, claustrophobic corridor funnels you into a large room that’s illuminated like a cave in a power cut. It was once a playhouse; there’s a stage over there, and black and white portraits of stars from the Twenties disturb the repetitive pattern of the brick walls. Nobody plays the East End now. Silhouettes hunch over round tables, counting money and whispering in monotones under twelve-bar blues piped in through fuzzy speakers. There’s nothing flashy, no waiters in tuxedos, no skimpy skirts.
There are girls, but they’re locked away downstairs, in a dungeon with a tarnished metal pole that’s seen as much polish as the doorman’s boots. It extends from the floor like a branchless tree, straining to hold up the ceiling. The girls sit far away from the pole on dull red sofas; there’s no pretence they’re anything but whores. Men rarely come here for them though, and it shows; they’re are all stick thin, as thin as their slice come the end of the week.
Best not to poke around much more, get back upstairs. Keep your head down now and don’t bother a soul.
Over in the far corner where the lights are working, a man in an apron that’s not been washed in ten days wipes whisky glasses behind the bar. He lines two up, fills them half way, then slides them in front of an invisible customer. Tonight is business night.
Time to sit tight and watch the show. Here he comes.
Outside, a figure approaches from the other side of the street and raps on that heavy wooden door with a round-headed cane. In the other hand he holds a cigarette, which burns slowly to the stub as he awaits an answer. It’s raining. His fringe flops forward and sticks to his forehead. Finally the hatch slides open and an ugly face fills the square.
“Who is it?”
“Me. Open the door.”
“Me who, that’s who. Open the door, it’s wet out.”
“No can do, mister. Need to know who I’m letting in and I can’t see jack. Awful dark out there.”
The visitor’s patience is a short wick on a bright day, and it’s just fizzled out in the rain. He looks from one hand to the other and picks the one with the fag. Paints a bright orange stripe in the black air as it zeroes in on the doorman’s left eye. There’s a yelp and the sound of a man falling down.
“Now open up.”
Scuffling behind the door and a jangle of keys. Door swings wide to reveal an imposing figure, long black overcoat, black moustache, black shoes, black eyes. The doorman cowers aside pathetically, clutching his face with both hands. His eyelid was quick enough to shut out the burning cigarette but there’ll be a scar. Better than last time, at least. That right eye doesn’t see much any more.
“Sorry sir, didn’t recognise you. It’s the dark you see. Can’t be letting just anyone, can we?”
“Is he in, Shrimp?”
“Yes, waiting for you, sir. How was the game, sir?”
The visitor’s glare substitutes an answer. He slips off his overcoat and throws it at the quivering doorman, who releases one hand from tending his injury to catch adeptly. It’s hung on a hook. When little Shrimp turns back around his bully is striding away, heels echoing loudly off the stone floor, quickly disappearing into the main chamber where you and the money counters are waiting for him.
Shrimp leans heavily on the wall and slides down to the ground. Releases a sigh of relief that sounds more like a whimper. Reaches instinctively for his hip flask but then changes his mind. Gonna be an eventful night, this. Best keep a clear head.
Muddy Waters is wailing Train Fare Home Blues when the visitor joins you in the inner sanctum. He’s not here for the music though. Up to the bar now, where he finds his seat and rests the cane delicately in front of the two glasses. Picks one, empties it. The other swiftly follows its mate. Before the second glass hits the stained wooden bar it’s replenished by the figure in the greasy apron. Knows better than to keep a man waiting.
At the other end of the bar sits an older man, sixty perhaps, it’s hard to tell from this distance. Still, it’s clear to any mug that those heavy-lidded eyes hold the wisdom of a hundred years. White hair, white beard, long moustaches hanging neatly. Grey suit. Been there since you arrived has this old man, since the beginning of time it seems. Just sitting. No drink, despite the offer. Sitting, waiting, watching the clock.
The visitor turns his head slowly. Sees the old man. Picks up his cane and a glass; ice cubes clink together. Shuffles on down to the end of the bar. It’s a small trip but a big tell. The old man holds court here.
“Yes, sorry, Sam. Trains. You know how it is.”
This visitor doesn’t apologise to any old fool. Then again, he knows the score.
“Yes, I know how it is.” Old Sam wrote the score. He talks slowly, unimpressed. “Brought the money?”
There’s a silence that tells the room no. Probably explains the visitor’s bad manners at the door. Knows he’s in trouble. Sam contemplates. Neither man speaks for an age. The whispers have died, too.
Finally: “So. What options have you left me? You’re not holding a pretty hand.”
The visitor thinks hard about how to play this one. Fingers his cane and takes just a sip of his amber liquor this time. Scratches his nose. Takes another sip.
“Look, Sam. I can get it. Just need a bit more time. Something came up, threw a spanner in the works. Crazy, actually. You heard about Marl, right?”
“You know, Marl Johnson. League’s MVP last term, shot half the team’s score on his own, no matter who he faced. NBA scouts been watching him for months now, rumours are he’ll make it to the States next season. Anyway, turns up at the game ten minutes before tip-off looking greener than grass, says it must’ve been something he ate. He’s stuck on the bench, but by half time he’s been rushed to hospital on the double. Dunno how he’s doing now, but I mean… that’s why I lost it, Sam, you can’t…”
As he trails off your mind flicks back to something overheard coming out the underground, some kid’s headphones shouting reports of a baller called Johnson, laid up in hospital. That’s right, he’s in a coma now. Docs say he might not make it.
Sam, hasn’t said a word. A pretty story doesn’t pay the bills.
“Come on, Sam, we go way back.” The previously intimidating visitor is facing you now. There’s desperation in his eyes as well as his voice.
“We do. We do indeed. Shame.”
Both men know what that means. Visitor’s panicking now, rubbing his whole face with that sweaty hand like it’s on fire. Goes to say something but gets stuck in his throat. Unrecognisable from the bully at the front door.
Sam, on the other hand, is a picture of calm. Curles one moustache in his thumb and forefinger as he contemplates the cleanest method. Heck, he’s done with clean. This one can double up, it is about time. The little chap’s earned his spurs.
“Hank, call Shrimp down, will you?”
The bartender disappears. Comes back with the doorman, still nursing his eye with a dirty paw. The visitor’s been scanning the room but can’t spy an escape. Men between him and every exit. Knows they’re carrying.
If Shrimp’s scared of the visitor, he’s petrified of Old Sam. Seen what he can do.
“Am I a fair man?” The question’s to no-one in particular. “Someone needs to keep law and order round these parts. If a man goes against his word they must be brought to justice. Am I right?” Again rhetorical, but he’s addressing Shrimp now. Points lazily at the visitor. “Tells me some tale about a baller with dodgy guts. Sounds to me like the lad’s been poisoned, but that’s not my concern. A deadline’s a deadline. This man has wronged you too in the past, has he not?” Sam squints at the newly messed-up eye. “More recently than I’d realised, perhaps. What say you to some retribution?”
This time Sam pauses for a reply. Shrimp bites his lip till it bleeds. Peers at the bully through the smoky half-light. Could be some kind of trick. It’s worth the risk. Can’t back out now.
“I say yes, sir. Man’s an arse, if you don’t mind me sayin’.”
The visitor eyes Shrimp with disdain. Not like this. Please, not like this.
Sam reaches over and plucks the cane from the visitor’s feeble grip. Runs his slender fingers along its smooth shaft, examines the metal head, then the tip at the other end, which tapers to a fine point. Flings it at Shrimp, who catches it like he caught the coat.
Three suits rise from the table next to you to pin the visitor where he sits. Struggles for a second, kicking out his feet, making a racket like the tap dancers who used to frequent this joint. Gives up soon enough when the wind’s punched out of him. Makes the sound of a balloon deflating.
Shrimp looks to Sam for confirmation. A nod.
He raises the cane high in both hands. Has a maniacal look about him now, what with the blood pooled around his eye socket and a snarl that mirrors his enemy’s angry look back then at the entrance.
Then he pauses, just for a second, mind whirring quicker than the fan above his head. You glance over at Sam; he’s frowning at the hesitation.
No, Shrimp definitely can’t back out now, Old Sam would have him too. This is a test, an invitation. Four years he’s dutifully manned that door. Not let a soul in who’s not been invited, and not let many back out, either. Kept mum the whole time, too, and that’s not as easy as you’d think. Cops don’t dare show their faces here but questions fly about. One wrong word and you’d wake up dead.
He’s a good kid, Shrimp, but he knows his task. This is it, his time’s upon him. It’s cost him half his sight, but that’s a fair price, he reasons. Especially now he’s got this shot at revenge. And anyhow, the whole plot was set up for this moment. It’s all fallen neatly into place.
Shrimp smiles wider than a clown as he raises the cane a little higher.
Brings it down like a missile.
Straight through the visitor’s eye.
Won’t be seeing out either of his, now.
The cane’s gone right through the back of his head, pinning him to the bar like a ragdoll. You’d never have guessed that little Shrimp had such strength in those scrawny arms. When the muscle step aside the dead man hangs there, staring dully up through the ceiling at somewhere he’ll never get to now. Begins to slowly paint the bar red. Place needed a bit of brightening up.
You’re probably beginning to realise why nobody wants to visit.
A group’s gathered at the bar now, each of them looking at Shrimp in a new light. Sam grins wickedly and addresses his audience.
“Sometimes the shark gets a shrimp to do his dirty work, eh boys?”
Quiet laughter. Words are exchanged between Shrimp and a couple of the suits. Looks like the lad’s just earned his promotion.
The money counters make their way back to their seats. As the scene draws to a close, you notice Shrimp and the barkeep exchanging glances. A brown packet’s passed over the dead man to this side of the bar. Shrimp approaches and slinks into the chair opposite you. He’s even uglier up close. Maybe it’s that, or maybe it’s because he just killed a man in cold blood, but he’s a lot more intimidating than he was at the door. Passes you the packet. Feels like a wad of notes.
“You know where to take this?”
Tell him you do.
He plucks another, smaller package from his pocket. “And this is for your time. Tell your mate his potion did the trick good and proper.”
His blind eye winks at you. Doesn’t need you to tell to keep schtum about what you’ve seen. Rises and walks you silently to the front door. Slams it shut behind you.
Now, be a doll and drop off that nice thick packet, would you? Expensive stuff, rat poison.
Silhouettes And Twelve Bar by Jude Ellery is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License