At the entrance to Manchester’s Natural History Museum there was a riot going on. Free from the classroom, the walls and the routine, a dozen kids were going wild. A red-faced teacher, old and jaded, tried his best to maintain order. But his best wasn’t good enough. The kids, their astute senses finely tuned to his every stutter, every show of weakness, knew this: his time was up.
Across the road Dennis sat on a bench, watching, smoking a cigarette and smiling. Smoking because he loved to smoke. Smiling because he was free. He liked being back on the streets of Manchester and he liked Manchester kids. Wished he could be a kid again, or at least younger than his forty-eight years. He wished for a lot of things beyond his control.
The teacher ushered the kids inside. Dennis pitched his cigarette into the gutter and crossed the road.
George stood waiting for Dennis inside the museum, looking up at the skeleton of a T-Rex. He hadn’t visited Dennis for the last eight of his thirteen-year stretch. Not since Big Jim went nuts. Couldn’t face Dennis because of what he’d heard. Bad rumours seeping through the prison walls and out onto the streets. Lots to catch up on, to talk over. Subjects to be avoided. Yet, when Dennis appeared by his side, all George could think to say was this: ‘Sixty-five million years.’
Dennis looked at his friend, older in years by a score but with a mind like a razor, and said, ‘Is that so?’
‘That’s so,’ George said. ‘I read somewhere that it’s made up of seventy-percent genuine bones. The rest is model.’
Dennis thought on this. ‘So, if it’s taken them sixty-five million years to find seventy-percent of the bones, then how long will it take them to find the other thirty-percent?’
George turned to see if Dennis was smiling. He was. George had missed him.
Still smiling, Dennis said, ‘You told me over the phone that Little Jimmy wanted to see me.’
‘That’s what he said.’
‘Did he send a driver?’
‘I’m it,’ George said.
Dennis stopped smiling and looked at George. He saw an old man, not George so much, not really.
‘Bullshit,’ he said. ‘He’s got you driving now, has he? Jesus, George, he’ll have you wiping his arse next.’
George shrugged his wide shoulders. ‘You’ve got to take what's given to you, Dennis. What else am I supposed to do at my age, with my record?’
‘Not me,’ George said. ‘I’d get bored. Did you watch much daytime telly inside? It’s fucking awful.’
‘Not really,’ Dennis said. ‘Too busy watching my back.’
George felt Dennis still looking at him, an unspoken accusation there. George mentally shrugged it off, said, ‘Besides, he’s got his own crew now.’
‘Who?’ Dennis said. ‘Not Daffy and his mob. A bunch of fucking bag-snatchers hanging around shopping centres on a Saturday. They couldn’t hold up a milk-float between them.’
‘He keeps me on to help me out, that’s all,’ George said, ‘and out of loyalty to his old man. Not that Big Jim has a clue what’s going on anymore. Last time I went to visit him, he was going on about his fucking Tonka trucks again.’
‘I know. And he stunk of piss n’all. They wouldn’t have dared leave him in that state at one time. He’d snap their necks given half the chance.’
‘And I don’t suppose son number one goes to see him much.’
‘Little Jimmy? Like hell he does. He’s glad he’s out of the way. He can carry on however he wants now.’
‘Yeah,’ Dennis said, ‘I’ve heard how he carries on. You know Chantelle’s brother was on my wing.’
‘Still looking for the payback, is he?’
‘Wouldn’t you be? That was his sister. Pretty girl, that Chantelle.’
‘Not anymore,’ George said, ‘but acid tends to do that. And as far as payback goes, he doesn’t have a chance. Little Jimmy won’t go for a shit without his crew all over him. He wouldn’t get near enough to point a finger.’
‘True.’ Dennis needed another cigarette. ‘Fancy a smoke?’ he said.
‘I dunno. Six months back. Seven. Thereabouts.’
‘Never thought I’d see the day.’
‘Mind if I go out for one?’
‘Fucking hell, Dennis, you just got here.’
This was tantamount to George forbidding him to go. Dennis shifted his slight frame. Said, ‘Did Jimmy say what he wanted to see me about?’
‘You know what. The agreement.’
‘Come on, Dennis, don’t play the cunt. You know what. The ten-grand agreement.’
Dennis laughed. Too loud. Too forced. No humour in it. ‘Thirteen years, George. Far as I’m concerned there is no ten-grand, not anymore.’
‘Not what Little Jimmy thinks.’
‘Fuck what Little Jimmy thinks. I owed his dad, and his dad said debt wiped. End of story.’
But Dennis had heard all he needed to from inside. Word got around, and word said Little Jimmy was taking control of business. One failed heist with a loss of ten thousand. One man to blame. One man to pay the shortfall. Thirteen years and tight lips didn’t mean a thing anymore. Dennis knew; there is no end to this kind of story. He was caught like a fish on a hook.
George, who had been around long enough, seen enough, killed enough, had known it too. Dennis wasn’t walking out of prison into a free life. He’d just stepped back into the world he grew up in.
George pulled a silver-plated hip flask from inside his coat. Took a sip, held the flask out to Dennis. ‘Drink?’
‘Do I need one?’
‘Thirteen years? I know I would.’
Dennis had a pull, coughed, and handed it back. ‘Now you’re talking,’ he said. His throat sounded tight behind the whiskey. His voice higher.
‘I should have brought you a Vimto,’ George said.
Dennis inhaled sharply. ‘The booze meant to soften me up for something, George?’
‘Just trying to keep you young, that’s all.’
Dennis snorted. ‘It’ll take more than whiskey. Prison’s aged me. You, on the other hand, you’re looking alright.’
George raised one thick eyebrow. His work had taught him to recognise a liar.
‘I mean it,’ Dennis said. ‘You’ve got twenty years on me and you could pass for my brother.’
‘Don’t take the piss,’ George said flatly. And for a second there, Dennis knew how it must feel to be on the receiving end of George’s indifference. Then George said, ‘I look like I’ve been sat in a cold bath for the past year. Some of the punters here probably think I’m one of the mummies.’ He laughed and Dennis did too. They each had another drink. George put the flask away again.
‘Just saying,’ Dennis said, ‘you look well.’
‘You can’t always go off looks,’ George said.
Dennis let that one pass him by. Mentally counted the teeth in the T-Rex’s mouth. ‘So, you were saying -- Little Jimmy . . .’
‘He has an offer for you.’
‘He appreciates you not spouting off, and . . .’
‘That’s big of him.’
‘Hold on. He appreciates you not spouting off, and he’s willing to let you work the ten off.’
‘Dennis . . .’
‘Fuck that, George. For how long? Come on, mate, you know how that’ll turn out. In his pocket ‘til I’m sat pissing myself next to you and Big Jim in the little nut-house on the prairie? Not a chance, George. Not a fucking chance.’
The kids on the school trip filed past. Dennis couldn’t see the teacher anywhere. He let them pass, lowered his voice. ‘Not a chance.’
‘It won’t be like it used to be, Dennis. Things have changed. He’s branching out.’
‘What, taking trips to the Isle of Man for his hold-ups now, is he?’
‘He’s not holding up anything. Not in the old sense anyway. Post offices closing left and right. Security systems aren’t as easy to rig anymore. Like I said, things have changed.’
‘So, what then? He’s gone legit?’
They both laughed at this.
‘ Not in this lifetime,’ George said, ‘or the next one. No. He’s into computers.’
‘He uses them to fleece folk. Over the computer, like. It’s beyond me if I’m honest. All that cyborg crime.’
Dennis smiled. ‘Cybercrime, they call it, George. A cyborg’s like what you get in The Terminator.’
‘You know what I mean, smart arse,’ George said. ‘Fucking cyborg cyber bollocks. Whatever it is, it’s big business. Supposedly anyway. He got the idea from one of his Nigerian mates works for him.’
‘No, not Freddie. He’s not been seen for a while now. You wouldn’t know him. A guy called Lorry.’
‘Lawrie, like in Lawrence?’
‘No, like in ‘Red lorry, yellow lorry’.’
‘Easy for you to say.’
‘Anyway, this Lorry kid, he’s got an uncle in Africa. Always going on about him, about how he works from behind a desk. No risk.’
‘Pussycat, I say. Whichever way you look at it, they’re raking it in over there.’
‘But not Manchester.’
‘Not yet. Little Jimmy reckons he’s about to change all that, though. With a little help from your good self.’
‘And how does he expect me to help? I brushed up on my woodwork inside, George, not my IT skills. Tell you what, I’ll build him a lovely spice rack as a peace offering, how’s that?’
George barked a cough into his fist. Kept his fist to his mouth while he pulled out a crumpled handkerchief from his trouser pocket. Switched his fist for the handkerchief and brought up some phlegm.
‘You alright there, George?’ Dennis said.
George wiped at his mouth. ‘Fucking spice rack,’ he said.
‘You sure you’re alright?’
‘Six months without a fag, and I’ve never felt worse.’
‘They say that.’
‘Yeah. Well. Too little too late.’ He spat pink into the handkerchief. Stuffed it back into his pocket.
‘Jesus, George. How long?’
‘How long what? I’m fine.’ George pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. Pulled them away and drew a breath. ‘It’s you I’m worried about.’ Then, through clenched teeth, ‘Little fucking Jimmy.’
Dennis put a hand on George’s forearm. ‘It’s alright,’ he said, ‘I’ll talk it through with him.’
George’s face was set. Stone. Teeth looking like they would crack at any moment, his skin taut, eyes watery. ‘You always were good at talking, kid,’ he said, ‘but not this time. Not with him.’
‘George . . .’
‘Listen, for fuck’s sake. For once, alright? Listen to me, Dennis.’
Dennis dropped his hand. Listened as George said, ‘He knows about your Matthew.’
Dennis tensed. ‘What about him?’
‘You know. His job on the Quays with that security firm. Fixing up computer problems and that.’
‘He wants you to have a word with him. See if he’ll meet up, help to get things started.’
‘So, what does he need Matt for if this Lorry’s so clued up?’
‘Cos he’s not, is he? He’s just got an uncle in Nigeria who is. Matt, on the other hand, is right here on his doorstep. This way it’s closer to home.’
‘Exactly why I’m not doing it. He’s my son, George. And, in case you don’t remember, he promised Sue he’d stay on the straight and narrow. It was bad enough for her being married to a criminal without her son turning out to be one as well.’
George let this settle on his conscience. Welcomed it.
‘Anyway,’ Dennis said, ‘what makes you think I hold any sway over him. He visited once, early on. Just to tell me he wouldn’t be visiting again. The one time I’ve seen him since was at Sue’s funeral.’
‘Alright,’ George said.
‘No. Not alright.’
And how could it ever be again? The stress finished her off. Dennis, his son reminded him, had finished her off. Dennis had stood on one side of the church with two police. His and Sue’s family on the other. George sat behind, far back, on Dennis’s side. Big Jim too far gone by that stage to make it anywhere. After, outside the church, an Audi had sat idling by the kerb. Bass thrum through the still morning. Inside Little Jimmy, Daffy, two in the back. All smiling in a cannabis fog.
‘I would have buried him without the cuffs on,’ Dennis said.
George took out the flask again. This time he let Dennis drink first. This time the whiskey went down smoother. George took a drink, put the flask away.
‘He’s giving you a choice,’ George said, ‘bring Matthew in and he’ll waive the ten.’
He delivered the message impartially. The insult he threw like a brick.
‘And if I don’t?’ Dennis said.
‘You pay the ten.’
‘He’ll send Daffy and his boys to convince him another way.’
George ran a meaty hand over his face. Dennis heard the stubble scrape against the palm of George’s hand.
‘I’m sorry, Dennis. I can’t . . . That Daffy and his mates, I know we take the piss out of them, but they’re fucking animals. You know, I still see Chantelle’s mum from time to time. She looks like a ghost.’
The T-Rex loomed over them. Jaws wide. Fierce even in death.
‘You know I only came because you asked me to,’ Dennis said. ‘You’re the only one left I can trust.’
George sighed. ‘While you were away, I tried to right some wrongs. Make peace with God for what it’s worth. We’ve done some bad things, Dennis. But this new breed, I don’t understand them. And now I’ve got this thing and the doctor says I’ll be lucky to see Christmas.’
‘I’m sorry, George.’
‘Don’t be. I’m not. I’m the past, Dennis. It hurts when I piss now.’
‘But you’re George fucking Riley,’ Dennis said.
‘I’m done is what I am,’ George said.
‘Looks like that makes two of us then.’
‘Like fuck it does. You’re still young enough to do something else. Put inside behind you.’
Dennis grinned. A death’s head smile. ‘If it’s behind me, it’s only natural that it follows.’
George knew that grin. He’d seen it twice before, back in the days when Dennis could switch in the time it took to blink. Whatever he was grinning at, the person on the receiving end didn’t stick around long enough to share the joke.
‘Look . . .’ George said.
Dennis held up a hand. ‘It’s alright, George. I know you tried to help me from outside, and it was okay when Big Jim was around. But after that . . .’
George said, ‘I’m sorry, Dennis. I’m not the strength I was.’
‘But still stronger than me.’
George took out the flask of whiskey again, passed it to Dennis. When he’d finished drinking, Dennis wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘So now what?’ he said.
‘There’s another option,’ George said.
Dennis nodded. ‘You still carry a Walther?’
‘Course I fucking do. What do you think?’
‘You have a spare?’
‘In the car. His and hers. Bernie Lomas did me a deal. But just remember, your piece is ‘hers’.’
‘I try.’ And now George was grinning too.
‘So, what time’s fuck face expecting us?’ Dennis said.
‘Three o’clock,’ George said.
‘We better go and see him early then, eh?’
‘Why not,’ George said. ‘Why not.’
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