The following was my entry to the Reading Crime Festival short story competition. I didn’t win, but as these things are subjective I figured I may as well air it here. Mark Billingham, award winning crime writer and Maid Marion and Her Merry Men actor, wrote the opening paragraph to the story which then had to be finished in 1600 words.
They say that you always know when you meet the ‘one’.
You’ve seen it in countless films and read about it in books. There’s usually some combination of the mouth going dry, sweat breaking out, the heart thumping like a drum/thunder/the wings of a captured bird etc.
I’d always thought it was nonsense.
That was before he walked into the shop. Before the sweating, the dry mouth and – since you ask – a heartbeat that felt like a racing engine about to tear itself out of my chest.
Before I clapped eyes on the one I was meant to kill.
“You’re late.” I said as he walked slowly towards the shop counter.
“I’m sorry, traffic. It’s been terrible since they started work on the station, you know.”
“Sod the traffic Johnny, I did tell you what I was supposed to be doing today. They are watching.”
“Really? Right now?” Johnny said, looking around.
“Of course, they need to make sure I do the job right.”
“But you’re not going to?”
“I ought to,” I snapped back. “You’ve put us all at risk. But.. I won’t”
“I’m sorry, I..”
“Save it. I’ve heard it before.”
Johnny was impulsive. He never thought about the impact of his actions. So the situation in which we now found ourselves should not have surprised me as much as it did. The people surrounding the shop wanted Johnny dead, and they told me to do it. “To prove myself” they said. They had provided the gun and enough petrol to enable me to burn all the evidence and more besides. Using their connections they would then claim on the insurance, and make a tidy profit on the whole horrid affair.
I’d worked with Johnny at Chen’s motor shop for 3 years before I was trusted to know what really was going on. The shop was a front for much more lucrative lines, the Chen brothers moved in all different kinds of black markets. Drugs, weaponry, prostitution, the profits from which were worked through the shop’s books and laundered in many ways which I was not privy to. My first three legitimate years at the shop now made so much more sense. The shop used to be empty, yet we’d keep expanding. New stock would arrive but it would never move through to the store front.
Back then, Johnny worked much harder than I did. He had a wife and family to feed, I had only just finished a course at uni. To me a shop with no customers meant life was a breeze, get in more or less whenever, mess around for a few hours, then shut up and go home. Johnny catalogued the stock, polished windows and generally dealt with any legitimate trade we had. This was to change quite dramatically.
I still remember the day Mr Chen invited us to his home. He lived on the outskirts of town, in a large mock tudor house. He was a successful car parts dealer, with at least three more stores that Johnny and I were aware of, so we were not surprised to see luxury cars in the garages, or large cinema screens in the lounge. We were led through to the office by an attractive young woman, brunette, about 5’8”, dressed in a black dress suit. I remember I enjoyed watching her move effortlessly through the light airy rooms, she had a sway a young guy couldn’t ignore.
She came to a graceful stop next to a large wooden door and I nearly walked into her. Well my mind wasn’t fully focused on walking. She said, “Mr Chen will see you now” pushed open the door, and left me and Johnny to meet our boss.
“Come in gentlemen,” came a voice from within the room, which was relatively dark compared to the rest of the house. “Do excuse the darkness, I have a migraine coming on. Please make yourselves comfortable.”
Johnny and I navigated through the near darkness, and I thought I heard Johnny stumble and curse under his breath. Luckily I avoided this, and found a leather chair and sat down. My eyes now more accustomed to the dingy room, I was able to make out an ailing outline of Mr Chen, and the hapless Johnny, who thankfully had found a seat not far from me.
“I have invited you here today,” Mr Chen continued, “in part to thank you both for your hard work and dedication in the shop for the past three years, and also to give you an incredible opportunity.”
“Well I’m always up for new things.” Johnny jumped in.
“Yes, this should be new for you both.”
“What kind of opportunity would it be, Mr Chen?” I asked.
“Before I tell you that, I must be sure that you will not betray me. After you
leave here today there will be £5000 in your bank accounts. This is to display my trust in you.”
“Five thousand pounds, just for coming here?” Johnny replied excitedly, in a tone too shrill for Mr Chen’s migraine affected head.
“Yes, but please speak softly.” Mr Chen replied with a sigh. “Now, if you choose to share the information which I give you today, I will maintain that you stole this money from me, and you will find it very difficult to work anywhere in this town. Do you understand?”
Both Johnny and I agreed, I had student loans to pay off, and Johnny’s wife was always after a new this or new that for the children. Who were we to turn down five grand for sitting in a guy’s house? The next two hours changed our lives, it’s a cliché, but it was true. Over the next year Johnny and I were to make several drug runs for the Chens. The more we did, the more money we earned. My student loan was paid off in a month.
Johnny’s work ethic declined. He no longer had to worry about cash for his family, so he would often turn up late for jobs, or not at all, leaving me to make a solo run. I got Johnny’s share of the cash but I also got his share of the hassle. It was Johnny’s lateness that was to be his downfall.
Last week, we were instructed by Mr Chen to make a run down to Brighton, where there was a high value shipment coming in at 5:30am. The idea was that we stayed in a nice little B&B the night before, made the switch and then back to the shop. A simple run. Johnny would drive the car down, and we would have a few drinks by the sea before hitting the hay. That was the plan.
What happened was different. Johnny did drive down, but he decided he was going to enjoy the night life. He stayed out until 4am, and of course didn’t wake up for the 5:30am switch. Leaving me to do it solo, again. At 6:30 the B&B was surrounded by the police, our car on a police truck. Needless to say I didn’t stick around. I ran, just around for a while, I knew this was real danger. I didn’t know what to do, so I rang Mr Chen. He was livid. I spent the night in another B&B. Mr Chen said he would send a car for his shipment the next day. I wasn’t sure at that point whether he meant me too.
Johnny spent the next 48 hours with the police. They’d offered him a deal, names, places, dealers in exchange for his freedom. Johnny told all, but he kept my name out of things. The least he could do, I guess. Mr Chen found out when one by one some of his most loyal workers got collared. Johnny had to go.
As I was one of the few employees not in the clink, Mr Chen told me to do it. “These are desperate times, Johnny has betrayed us all. You must prove yourself to be loyal” he said. Johnny was released without charge, and I spoke to him briefly to tell him of the plan, and for him to meet me at the shop. So he stood before me now like I’d never seen him before.
“So what are we going to do?” he said.
“What I said!” I replied, “Do you never listen?”
“Sorry. I’ve forgotten”
“Enough” I interrupted, and fired three shots into the ceiling. “That refresh
your memory? Now spread that petrol around.”
He duly obliged, and I joined in with liberally soaking the shop and back
room in fuel. We stood by the back door, the petrol fumes surrounding us, and I pushed it open. I ushered Johnny through, and threw a lit rag over my shoulder into the shop. Before the explosion occurred, Johnny and I were 250 yards away.
We kept running.
We knew news would be with Mr Chen soon. We weren’t about to stick
around to see what he would do. We each had enough money to set up a new life. A life away from this, Mr Chen’s empire was ending. I don’t know what he’d expected anyway. Johnny was a liability, but there was no way I would have killed him.
In a way we’d been running together forever. Johnny, for all his faults and messed up decisions, was the only one in my life who I’d even consider running with. Me and him against the world, my colleague, my partner in crime, my friend, my brother.
That was my entry. It didn’t win. However my good friend the Resident Weeble came 2nd. Read his story here.