by Barbara Ruskin
‘Hey! Skins, Muscles! What a surprise. Come on in. I was just having a fry-up.’ How the hell did these two bastards find me?
Muscles, with a chin resembling barbed-wire fencing and grinning a mouthful of metal fillings, already had one enormous muddy boot inside my caravan door. Had I tried to slam it on him, no doubt the door would have acquired a cat-flap.
Pork sausages and smoking chips wafted out, the cold night air gushed in. Closing the door, Muscles and Skins stripped off their camel coats and immediately made themselves at home in my cramped, paraffin-oil heated, detached residence situated in two acres of a desolate caravan park on flat Camber Sands.
‘Smells good.’ Muscles tore into my French bread like he was wringing the neck of one those poor unfortunate buggers who reckoned not paying for protection was an option. He stuffed the bread in his mouth and garbled, ‘What the neighbours like?’
‘Nosey,’ I answered cautiously. ‘Always dropping in on me.’
Muscles smirked. ‘What by helicopter? We didn’t see much sign of life out there.’ He walked to the stove and began turning the sausages and shaking the chips. ‘Got any eggs?’
‘Behind the tomatoes,’ I said, spotting the handy little 9mm shooter bulging under his sweatshirt. No doubt Skins was similarly tooled-up. This wasn’t going to be some cosy candlelit dinner. ‘So what brings you guys to the seaside in the middle of January?’ I asked.
‘Muscles fancied a donkey ride.’ Skins scratched his tattooed, half-shaven head, shifted along my unmade bed, feeling under the mattress for concealed weapons. Now, after six years of being sucked into the business of extortion, drugs and prostitution with these heavies, I was hurt he thought I could be so naďve. He looked up and grinned, reading my mind. ‘As a matter of fact it was the Duke who suggested we pay you a visit,’ he said. ‘Seems someone and something has gone missing.’
A heavy gust of wind caught the underside of the caravan, rocking the lighted oil lamps and rolling the sizzling sausages.
‘Better take them out,’ I said, eyeing my blackening dinner.
‘Funny,’ replied chef Muscles, not laughing. ‘That’s exactly what the Duke said when we asked what we should do with you and that thieving bitch you did the vanishing act with.’
Skins shoved me backwards onto the bed. I landed with such force, the shelf above collapsed and I was bombarded with cans of shaving foam, deodorants and gherkins. Yes, I happen to be very fond of pickled gherkins.
Hearing the commotion, Muscles came and joined us in the interrogation department. He leaned over me. He stank of BO. ‘We’ve got nothing personal against you,’ he said almost nicely, ‘we’re old mates, done time together. Always on the other end of the line for you, I was.’ Yeah, I mused, a real ‘phone-a-friend’ candidate if the category had been ‘how to put people in hospital’.
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It was Skins turn to have a crack. He was supposed to be the more intelligent of the twosome. He could spell hospital. ‘Everyone knows it was the bitch’s idea to nick the money out of the Duke’s takings,’ he offered. ‘Cocky little tart. Always was full of herself. Do you really wanna be the fall guy when she couldn’t give a toss about you? The Duke was real put out when she did a runner with his money. He had big plans for her.’
I’ll bet, I mused.
Muscles moved even closer to me. His metal fillings glistened in the lamplight. I thought for a moment he was going to kiss me. Instead he rubbed his spiky bristles against my designer stubble and slobbered an earful of saliva in my ear as he spat out the less-than-sweet, ‘So tell us where the thieving bitch is!’
‘I have no idea,’ I replied, as convincingly as possible. ‘Do you really think I’d be living in this hovel if…’
Skins figured me for a liar. Skins had me figured right. ‘It’s called laying low,’ he said. ‘You could be ten foot under and the Duke would still find you.’
But the Duke can’t find her, I thought. She was the reason I wasn’t ten foot under, otherwise these two morons wouldn’t be here screwing me for her whereabouts. But as long as they believed she was the mastermind and she was the one with the money - which they clearly did – then there was a chance I could get out of this tight hole with my organs still intact. Now who’s being a bastard, I groaned inwardly. Poor, deluded bitch. Being cocky was just her means of survival – most of the time her only means of survival. She wanted out of the organisation as much as me. There’s only so much kicking and manipulation one can take. So when the opportunity arose, well, we jumped at it. Who could blame us? Neat job, too. A hundred grand of the Duke’s blood-money – all bagged up and ready for delivery. Right into our hot sweaty hands. Truth be known, it wasn’t much more than loose change to the Duke but it was to be a new found freedom for us. She even wanted to do something decent for a change, like giving some of her share to the cats’ home. Like I said. Poor, deluded bitch.
‘All the boys had her, you know.’ Skins figured one last tactic to make me spill.
‘Probably the girls too,’ chipped in Muscles for good measure.
‘Probably’, I shrugged.
Skins temper rose. Squiggly red veins protruded on his shaven forehead. ‘Then if she’s such a fucking loser,’ he yelled, ‘why the shit are you protecting her? You don’t honestly believe she’s gonna hang around waiting for you to come out of hiding then sail off into the red sunset together? Not even you are that much of a dickhead!’
I knew that both Skins and Muscles had been stung by various of the Duke’s bitches in their time, so I tried to look wounded by his insinuation, let my expression play the ‘for-pity’s-sake-have-you-never-in-your-life-been-duped-by-a-scheming-slag?’
It appeared to work. Muscles loosened a little. ‘Just tell us where she is and we’ll talk to the Duke for you. He’s got a very forgiving nature, he’ll understand how she led you on, maybe even give you a break.’
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Who was he kidding? The only break from the Duke would be my neck. I knew time was running out for me and I was heading for a fist full of knuckles but still I insisted, ‘Believe me, fellas, you’re wasting your time. I have no idea where she or the money is.’
Skins’s right hook flew at my chin - I dodged sideways. Skins lost his balance, collided into Muscles and they both crash-landed onto the bed. I was already up and squeezing my lithe, contortionist form around their struggling bodies, on past the paraffin heater, under the swinging oil lamps, heading for the stove.
The chip fat was still bubbling. I grabbed the pan, scalding my fingers on the handle as I threw the hot oil over the lighted paraffin wick. Flames erupted. The blankets and nylon curtains ignited. Skins and Muscles were trapped. They screamed. I shivered.
I yanked open the door. The wind whooshed in turning the caravan into an erupting fireball. I tumbled out into the night air. I could just make out Skins and Muscles inside - their clothes, arms, hair on fire, crashing into cupboards, walls, frantically trying to find an escape route. I slammed shut the caravan door. Locking them into the blazing inferno. No time for sentiment now.
Then, without warning, there was the most God Almighty explosion. The door and windows blasted out. The tremendous force sent me hurtling backwards knocking me to the ground. Metal, glass, wood was flying everywhere. I went to roll my body into a protective ball but before I was able, a burning aerosol rocketed out from the blazing inferno directly into my face. The pain was excruciating as the red hot metal stuck fast to my skin, melting right through to the raw bone.
Call it inbuilt survival, but somehow I managed to belly crawl over the rough, sandy gravel, sensing instead of seeing when I had finally reached safer territory.
Drifting in and out of consciousness I lay, writhing on the ground, for what seemed an eternity. My crippled hands covering what was no longer a human face, my body trembling as much from fear of the unknown as the bitterly cold wind whistling the language of the living dead around me. I lay, in fact, until the ambulances and fire fighters arrived.
As they stretchered me into the ambulance, I knew I would never be able to see again. And if I were never to see again, how the hell was I going to find the hundred grand I had buried in the woods…or the poor, deluded bitch I had buried alongside it.
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© Barbara Ruskin, 2013