Authors: Gerard Brennan
"Louise. Slow down. What are you trying to say?"
"Did you hear about Missus McKinney last night?"
Karen blessed herself, a rapid up, down, left, right led by her middle finger. "Oh Jesus, that was awful. How many aul dolls is that now?"
"One's too many."
Karen gasped. "Wait a minute. You don't think your Joe has anything to do with them muggings, do you?"
Louise shook her head, then nodded, then shook her head again.
"You don't but you do?"
"What even put the thought in your head?"
"He's never at home."
"He's a teenager. How do you know he's not just out smoking or sneaking a wee drink of cider?"
"That's it. I don't. But I've no way of knowing for sure."
"Is that all the evidence you have?"
"Well, no, not really. New stuff keeps turning up in his bedroom. Clothes and DVDs. And he hasn't asked me for money in ages. I give him pocket money but he used to ask for a top up every week."
"Maybe he's selling a bit of blow."
"That's possible I suppose. I'd rather he was doing that than robbing pensioners in the street, but... God, I don't know."
Louise fought the urge to puke on her best friend's immaculate kitchen floor. Her stomach shunted itself into her throat and her mouth watered. She pulled in deep breaths and surfed the wave of nausea until it passed. Then she looked her friend in the eyes.
"Do you think I could have one of those biscuits now, Karen?"
Liam froze as Wee Danny rushed him. He watched the first punch sail through the air. White light flashed. His head snapped back. Before he fully understood he'd just been hit, Wee Danny's left fist split his lip. He stepped back. Wee Danny followed. The others cheered. Liam raised his hands. Wee Danny sidestepped and hit him with another punch.
"Stop it!" Liam's voice squeaked. Somebody laughed.
Wee Danny hit him again. Liam couldn't even see the punches coming. Tears blurred his vision. He stepped back again. The world tilted and he was on his back. The setting sun
the clouds blood red. Liam instinctively covered his head and rolled into a fetal position. He waited for the kicks to rain in.
"Okay, Danny," It was Joe's deep voice, "You've proved your point. Leave him alone."
Some of the spectators booed. His so-called friends. Booing because he didn't get
. Liam opened his guard and peeked through his arms. A Nike Air trainer filled the gap. Pain exploded in his nose.
"Danny! I said that's enough. Back off!"
"I'm going to kill the fat fucker."
"You don't kick a mate when he's down. Not even Liam."
Liam kept his face protected until the sounds of a struggle ended. Wee Danny had been restrained. He wiped tears and blood from his face with the sleeves of his white hoodie. It was ruined. His dad would kill him for losing a fight. Unless he told him he was jumped by three guys. And he fought off two of them. He'd get one of the Fegan twins to corroborate.
Already his left eye was swelling shut. Bruises made you look hard. At least the kicking had that small silver lining. Respect from strangers he'd pass on the street. He poked at his inflated eyelid and snapped his hand back again. He looked at his attacker. Joe gripped the wee bastard in a bear hug. Wee Danny muttered reassurances that the fight was over.
"You're a fucking psycho," Liam said. He struggled to keep his voice steady.
Wee Danny laughed and Joe loosened his grip on him. The smaller boy's hands went straight to his pockets. Seconds later a lit fag hung from his lips. It was over. Liam tried to hide his relief.
They drank. The fight excitement faded. The group relaxed. Then they drank some more.
Half an hour later, Liam picked flakes of dried blood from his nostrils. He'd drunk enough cider to numb the physical and emotional pain. The constant replay of how badly he'd been beaten faded to the back of his head. If he hadn't swallowed his pride the others would have lost even more respect for him. Storming off was for girls. Huffing on a carryout was a mortal sin. He gulped down another mouthful of cider. Then he stood up, waited for his balance to catch up with him, and walked over to where Wee Danny and Joe shared a bottle. They were rapping along to a G-Unit tune playing from Wee Danny's Motorola.
He coughed when the mini hip hop performance finally ended. Wee Danny looked up at him and tensed. He was ready to go again. Liam wasn't. He extended his hand and tilted his spinning head.
Joe nudged Wee Danny after the cheeky shite hesitated for a few seconds. He shook hands with Liam; his grip unenthusiastic and loose. Practically a fingertip shake.
"If you don't bother me, I won't bother you," Wee Danny said. He made sure he said it loud enough for the other guys to hear. Conversation around them ceased as the rest of the gang tuned in.
"Deal. I was out of order. End of story."
"Yeah you were."
Liam offered Wee Danny a cigarette. The peace offering was accepted and the rest of the gang lost interest. He sat on the grass with Joe and Danny and laughed as they fumbled through a Little Britain sketch until they were interrupted by Wee Danny's G-Unit ringtone. He staggered away before they started another sketch.
Two of the gang sat on the lip of the dry fountain. Liam approached them, his mask slipping. They were the Fegan twins. Eddie and Matt. Non-identical but always dressed to match. Liam had once asked how they always ended up wearing the same colour. They'd looked at him, confused, and explained that they just put on whatever their ma left out for them. Liam thought it was weird, but didn't tell them that. He could probably take either of them in a toe-to-toe, but if they ganged up on him he'd have no chance. They were notorious for their tag team skills.
They gave him that confused look again. He felt closer to them than anyone else in the gang so he told them the truth.
"My da says there's more than one way to skin a cat. I'll get my own back on that wee shite."
Eddie, the elder twin, nodded. Matt chuckled. He could rely on them if he needed to.
The sun sank out of the sky and the moon beamed. Liam checked his watch, closing one eye to focus. Nearly ten. The park keeper would kick them out soon.
"Lads!" Liam's voice boomed. He enjoyed the sound of it cutting through the night. "Last orders! It's nearly locking up time."
Plastic bags rustled as they were loaded with half empty cider bottles. The gang mumbled and grumbled but got to their feet, falling into a ragtag formation. They moved as one to the gate. The less time they spent arguing with the park keeper, the sooner the guy left and they got in again.
Paul Gibson thumbed the red button on his mobile and fired the little Nokia at his brown leather sofa. It bounced off the firm cushioning and clattered onto the beech-effect laminate flooring.
The back panel slid off on impact and the battery popped out. He cursed, collected the parts and pieced it together. He turned the phone back on and tried to call his brother again.
Danny never answered calls from family on a Saturday night. Acting the har
d man in front of his mates, Paul supposed. He'd strangle the wee bastard when he saw him.
Paul's conversation with Stephen McVeigh had twisted his head. The big ginger prick was a pain in the hole a lot of the time, but Paul never pegged him for a liar. His less than subtle hints must have been based on some sort of information. Even if it was just a
Paul had to figure out a way to put a stop to it. Around West Belfast
had a tendency to get people hurt. If it was more than a
... well, he'd have to break his little brother's neck.
Still no answer. He phoned his ma's house.
"Ma. Is our Danny there?"
"Aye right! That wee bastard won't be home for hours yet. He's too busy with his friends to want to spend time at home."
He heard a rumble in the background. His father complaining about late phone calls, no doubt.
"It's our Paul. Stop yapping you grumpy aul bastard. Sorry, love. What were we talking about? Oh aye, our Danny. He'll not be in until I'm in bed."
"What does he be doing at this time of night?"
"Kicking a ball about or breaking windows or something. You know what kids are like these days. Why do you want him?"
Paul could practically smell the vodka breath from his end.
"Ach, I just wanted to borrow a DVD off him," he said. "She's out with her mates and Owen is down for the night. TV's shite."
"You're right there, love. Is your Sinead out again? You want to tie that one down."
"Okay, Ma. Good night."
Paul sat on the sofa and flicked on the TV. Then he turned it off and stood up. He checked his watch. Half past nine. Danny was probably at the park but without a babysitter Paul couldn't track him down. Sinead wouldn't stumble in until the early hours. He sat down again, turned the TV back on and yawned. He rested his eyelids while he waited.
Paul's eyes sprang open. The scratching sound of a key trying to find its hole woke him. A few seconds passed as he took in his surroundings and straightened up his thoughts. He hated sleeping on the couch. Sweat soaked through his shirt and his neck complained when he looked to his right. The TV flickered an MTV music video, the sound low and tinny. A dried drool line ran down his cheek and he craved a shot of Listerine to freshen his mouth up. He tried to remember why he'd fallen asleep on the couch.
Sinead's key turned in the lock. She shushed herself as she wobble-stepped her way into the living room. Paul sat up on the couch and smiled at her. She'd left the house primped to perfection; straightened hair, warpaint just right and working the graceful strut of a catwalk model. She'd obviously had a great night. Windswept and goggle-eyed, she flumped onto the couch, like a punctured inflatable sex doll dressed in beer-stained Top Shop chic. She'd look even better in the morning.
"What the fuck are you doing up?" she asked, her tone affectionate. She looked at her watch, blinked and gave up. "It's late."
"It's after one, but I need to go out."
"I need to get a hold of our Danny. He's not answering his phone so I'm going to check the park and see if he's on a carryout."
"What's the rush? You could go see him tomorrow."
Paul didn't want to tell Sinead everything. She talked too much to be trusted. He toned down his suspicions.
"I heard he was selling dope to kids at school. I want to find out if it's true."
"The wee bastard. He better not be. See if he is, Paul, you give him a hiding."
"I will, but I have to go find him now."
"Right." She nodded like a sprung jack-in-a-box. Then her head jerked to a stop. "Wait a minute. What about our Owen? You can't leave him on his own."
"Aye, but I'm pissed."
"So if I go to sleep and he wakes up looking for me I mightn't hear him."
"He's five. He hardly ever wakes up at night."
"What if there's a fire?"
"For fuck's sake, Sinead. There won't be a fire. But if you're worried, make yourself a cup of coffee and sit up until I get back."
"But I'm knackered."
"And I'd rather be in bed too, but this is important."
"You're ruining my going-out night."
"You've been out. I haven't ruined anything."
"You always ruin everything."
"Look, do what you want. I'm out of here."