Friday, January 18, 2013

The Hitman and the Tea Lady by Rob Boffard

Rob Boffard tells the story of a hitman transporting grisly evidence of his latest job; all is going well until he dares to cross the tea lady.

Nobody had noticed the eyeball at the bottom of the coffee cup. Certainly not the man sitting opposite Halloram on the train. The man was reading the Financial Times over the top of his glasses, and when he'd sat down at Doncaster he hadn't even glanced at the empty cup on the table in front of him. He was sipping his own coffee, limpid-brown stains already showing through the flimsy cardboard, taking small, measured sips through the tiny hole on the lid. Halloram wondered if he should ask if he could borrow the man's cup lid when he was done.

It was, Halloram reflected, a bit unusual that he'd be carrying around an eyeball in a coffee cup. Even for him. But he'd needed to get the damn thing back to London and it had been quite slimy in his fingers and he'd just finished drinking his cup of equally slimy Starbucks, so... Anyway, he'd thought as he'd boarded the quiet carriage in Edinburgh, probably nobody'll notice. He'd only been a little bit surprised when they hadn't.

The eyeball wobbled from side to side as the train rumbled over the tracks, tethered to the bottom of the cup by its shiny nerve and a meniscus of unfinished coffee. Its original owner was now lying in a field outside Edinburgh, quite dead. That was what a point-blank headshot did to a person, and at least, Halloram pondered, the man wasn't alive with the knowledge that his eye was flying away from him at about a hundred miles an hour. That'd really do your head in.

The man opposite had been glancing at the coffee cup more frequently. Halloram hoped he would stop. He really didn't want to have to make this trip any more tiresome than was absolutely necessary. But no, the man was returning to his FT, all he'd seen was a crumpled up Snickers wrapper, he was sure of it, and Halloram went back to gazing listlessly out at the endless passing fields.

He didn't particularly like Scotland. The train had passed the coast some time ago, and although several of the passengers gasped audibly as the craggy cliffs swerved into view, Halloram just sighed. He was a city boy. He liked buildings and roads and traffic lights and zebra crossings and tube trains and little delis where you could get incredible bacon and cream cheese bagels for two quid. He emphatically didn't like craggy cliffs. Or endless passing fields. He especially didn't like going up to Scotland, even if it was on a job which would bring badly-needed money.

He'd never meant to become a hitman. It just happened to him over a long period of time.

He'd rather hoped, after his first couple of jobs, that in a few years - months, maybe, if he got lucky - crime bosses and bar owners and Pakistani rent boys would whisper about Wild Joe Halloram. But as it turned out, the killing game had too many players in it. All the big contracts were taken by the big boys who made big holes in anyone who thought they had big enough balls to cause trouble for genuinely big people. So Halloram was stuck with the small-time gigs.

He grunted, and dug in his bag for a packet of Percy Pig sweets.

Job well done though, he had to admit that. Halloram might not be living on a boat in Monaco pulling one hit a year, but let nobody say that he wasn't a professional. He'd carried out his instructions to the letter. Find the bastard, kill him and bring me back his eye, Dom Ronson had said. Not that Halloram really cared who the bastard was, or what he'd done to make Ronson angry enough to want his eyeball ripped out of him.

Ronson had paid upfront. Halloram had bought them a round with a tenner from the £1000 roll of cash he'd been passed under the table. Then he'd pissed off to Edinburgh, found the bastard, done his job and was now very, very keen to get back as soon as possible, hand Ronson his eyeball and go home.

"Any refreshments?" said a plump lady pushing a cart laden with snacks down the aisle. She waddled past them, and FT Man smiled and asked for a packet of cheese and onion crisps. Halloram paid them no attention, pausing only to wave the lady away. His Percy Pig sweets sat unopened on the seat beside him; after pulling them out, he'd found he had no appetite.

He was, he supposed, not really bothered about being a small fish. He hung out at the pub most days, had some quiet pints, and if nobody came looking for him with a job offer (which, he thought with something like guilty relief, didn't happen very often) he'd pootle off to his little flat above the dry cleaners, watch some bad TV, eat some beans on toast and turn in early. He knew some hitmen who stayed up for hours disassembling, cleaning, checking, reassembling and calibrating their handguns and rifles every night, finishing with some knife sharpening. Halloram didn't really go in for all that. He didn't even own a rifle.

Something was irritating him. Gradually, he realised that it was muted crunching coming from FT Man as he dug his way through his crisps. Sighing, Halloram turned in his seat to ask him to shut it, when he saw something that made his stomach freeze.

"Erm, excuse me," he said. FT Man looked up, his hand in his crisp packet. Halloram stared at him. "Where is it?"

"Where is what?" said the man in a light Scots accent.

"My coffee cup. Where is it? What have you done with it?"

FT Man shrugged. "I haven't touched it. Sorry." He started to dig for crisps again.

Halloram stood up, reached across the table, grabbed the man's shoulders, pulled him close to his face and said, very quietly, "Where?"

"I don't know," spluttered the man, his eyes wide with surprise. "I didn't see... oh hang on, maybe the tea lady took it."

Halloram wondered if you could get locked up for punching someone on a train. "Who?" he said.

"The tea lady," the man squeaked. "The woman with the trolley. She sold me these." He lamely held up his crisp packet. "Maybe she picked up your cup because she thought it was empty. She had a rubbish thingy on her cart. Maybe it was empty. I don't know. Wasn't it? Maybe she thought there wasn't anything in it."

But Halloram was already out of his seat and moving down the carriage. The man fell back, open mouthed.

The tea lady was two cars down. She was, Halloram thought, exactly the kind of person you'd expect to have a career as a tea lady on a train. She had a monobrow, and the kind of face that said that if you didn't give the exact change on the first go-around, she was going to remember you for eternity.

Her cart was between them in the aisle. It was loaded with sweets and crisps and railway sandwiches, and on the side furthest from Halloram, there hung an off-white bin bag. When he reached the cart, the tea lady was passing another packet of crisps to someone he couldn't see.

"Excuse me," said Halloram, raising his voice only slightly. She ignored him.

He cleared his throat. This time, she glanced up with a look of undisguised annoyance. "Just let me deal with this customer, and I'll be right with you, love," she said. The last word wasn't even on nodding terms with its original meaning.

But what was he supposed to do? Tell her that a human eyeball, recently liberated from its rightful owner, had found its way into her bin bag, possibly jeopardising an extremely important hit? So he stood, and waited, and drummed his fingers on the back of someone's seat and watched the landscape pass by. They were somewhere between Doncaster and Retford, around 150 miles from London.

Eventually the tea lady finished counting her change. Ignoring him, she turned to the next person. Halloram cleared his throat very loudly, and she reluctantly rotated her monobrow in his direction.

"Yes? What can I get you?"

"Actually, I'd like to look in your rubbish bag."

She stared at him. "I beg your pardon?"

"I think you took something of mine by mistake. I need to get it back."

"If I put something in the bin, that's because it's rubbish, love," she said, as if addressing a five-year-old.

Halloram blinked. "But it wasn't rubbish."

"What was it?"

He very, very nearly told her.

"A coffee cup," he said instead.

"Was there coffee in it?"

Before he could stop himself: "No, but..."

"Well then, it was rubbish, innit?"

Joe sensed the conversation sliding away from him. "No, it wasn't rubbish," he said, with some effort. "I wasn't finished with it."

She folded her arms. "How do you know I took it?"

"If you'd just let me have a quick look in your bag..." He reached his hand across the trolley.

"Can't."

His hand hovered in midair. "What do you mean, can't?"

"Can't. Elf and Safety."

"It's a rubbish bag!"

In a monotone voice, she said, "According to Elf and Safety Regulation Thirty Seven Paragraph Two Subsection B, the designated refuse container pertaining to the wheeled beverage and comestible device can only be operated by a trained wheeled device manager..."

This, Halloram thought, was beginning to feel like one of those stupid puzzles you find in the doctor's office. The kind with a tiny metal ball enclosed in a plastic maze which you have to rotate to get the ball into the centre, and which always have a corner you can't get the ball around no matter how much you wiggle it.

He exhaled slowly. "Look, it's perfectly simple. You have taken something of mine, and I would like it back. Please."

In a voice so covered with syrup it was practically dripping, she said, "Well, why don't you tell me what it is, love, and I'll have a look for it?" She was already reaching into the bag.

"No!" said Halloram, louder than he intended.

She frowned at him. "No need to shout. Just tell me what you're looking for."

"I... that is... it's..." He gave up. "For heaven's sake, just let me see," he said, and grabbed the edge of the bag. He was now teetering on one foot, reaching across the trolley.

She slapped his hand away, and Halloram stared in silent wonder. "I should warn you, Sir," she said, the syrup turning to acid, "that if you touch the disposal unit on my comestible device I will be forced to call the conductor."

Everyone in the carriage was now staring at them. The train was just pulling into Retford.

The lady seated on Halloram's left gave a gentle ahem. "If it's not too much trouble, I'd like a cup of coffee, please," she said.

"With pleasure, love," said the tea lady. "White or black?"

Halloram stood there, his mouth opening and shutting. The tea lady poured the coffee, set it down in front of the woman and gave her a wide smile.

It was the smile that tipped Joe Halloram over the edge. He did not have to put up with this. He was a world-class hitman, on a highly-paid mission of death and destruction, and he was about to be thwarted by a stubborn tea lady.

"Right. That's it," he said, and grabbed the bin bag.

"Oi!" said the tea lady, and before Halloram could react she'd grabbed the other end.

"Let go!" yelled Halloram. But the tea lady's eyes were thin slits, and her monobrow had become an enormous black lightning bolt. She pulled, and they began to yank the bag back and forth over the top of the trolley, which rocked from side to side in the aisle.

Halloram saw the Starbucks coffee cup, sitting upright in the bag.

He saw the top of the bag split.

He saw the cup fly out of the bag, propelled by a cascade of rubbish.

He saw the eyeball exit the coffee cup. It bounced off the window, and fell, with a plop, into the cup of coffee the woman had just ordered. It bobbed to the surface just as the train came to a halt at Retford station.

The tea lady began to scream.

After that, things happened very quickly.



"Hello?"

"Dom? It's Joe Halloram."

"Alright Joe? How are ya?"

"I've been better. Look, I've done the job..."

"Oh yeah? 'Ow'd it go?"

"Well, the job went fine..."

"Splendid, me old son, just splendid. I knew you was worth the bag of sand."

"The... what?"

"Bag of sand. Grand. The thousand quid, you numpty."

"...Right. Listen, I've got the other thing you asked for. Where do you want it delivered?"

There was a pause on the line. "What other thing?"

"What do you mean, what other thing? The... the thing. The thing you asked me to bring you."

"Joe, geezer, speak English, yeah?"

Halloram looked around. He was in an alley just off Oxford Street, talking on his clean cellphone. He didn't see anybody nearby, but still muttered the reply. "The eyeball."

"What was that?"

"The eyeball. The one you asked me to bring you."

"I didn't hear you right there, Joe. Did you say 'eyeball'?"

For the love of Christ, Joe thought. "Yes!" he hissed. "The eyeball! The eyeball you asked me to cut out of his head and bring to you as proof. The one that caused me to jump out the window of a train at bloody Retford and go on the run from the bloody police and fight my way through the bloody British countryside before I managed to hitchhike back to bloody London. That eyeball!"

"What, you..." There was another long pause. When Dom spoke again, his tone was one of amazement. "Oh Jesus, Joe, you didn't actually do it?"

"What do you mean?" Halloram asked. He thought he sounded very calm.

"Fuckin' 'ell, you did, dintcha? You took me serious. Oh fuck me, I didn't want his bleedin' eyeball! It was a joke, mate."

"It didn't sound like one!" Joe said.

"I was angry with the bloke, and yeah, I wanted him taken care of. But I didn't actually think you'd take me seriously about the eyeball thing. You're a hitman, not a fucking butcher!" Dom sighed. It was a very long sigh. "You are one crazy bastard. I've paid you, now fuck off. I don't want to see you."

"What do you want me to do with the eye?" bleated Halloram.

"Don't know. Don't care. Just stay away from me. We're done, alright?"

Dom paused. "You bloody psycho," he said, and hung up.

Joe stood and stared at his phone for quite some time. In his pocket, he could feel the eyeball. It was ever so slightly squashy. Drops of coffee had leaked through his trouser pocket, and were cold against his skin.




The postman's name was Bill, and he was whistling as walked his way up Oxford Street.

He shouldn't have been whistling. It was a long, long way between post boxes in this busy section of London, and when you got there, it was usually the case that there was very little mail to be had. But you had to do it, so you did it with a smile and... well, why shouldn't he whistle? The rain clouds that had been threatening all day had begun to clear, it was nearly payday, and a lady outside the Green Harvest pub had smiled at him when he walked past. Sure, she'd turned tail and fled when he'd smiled back (must get these damn teeth sorted out, he thought) but it was the principle of the thing.

He reached the postbox, dodging between the gawping gaggles of tourists out for a shopping day, and began to fill his bag.

"Oi, Bill!" said a voice from behind him.

Bill the postman turned. It was Archie, one of the bus drivers who he often saw along this route. Archie was stopped at a red light, and had opened his doors to shout the greeting.

"'Ello Archie," said Bill, grinning his horrible grin.

Archie didn't seem to mind. "Long day?"

"You betcha."

"Give you a lift if you like."

Bill's legs reckoned that this was a capital idea. He hurriedly pushed the last of the post into his bag, and hopped on the bus.

Archie opened the door to his little compartment, and reached a friendly hand around to Bill. As they shook, Bill's bag tilted, and a couple of envelopes fell out. Archie reached down to pick them up.

"Thanks," said Bill.

"What do you think that means?" asked Archie, tapping the front of one of the envelopes."

"Dunno," Bill shrugged. "Maybe someone sending back the wrong lost property or summink."

He took the envelope from Archie and dropped it into his bag. It was a square envelope, padded, with a tiny bump in the middle from its contents. Across the front was written the address of British Rail's Customer Care Department.

Underneath the address was scrawled: 'I don't want this anymore. You can have it back.'

7 comments:

  1. very good indeed, descriptive, tension and black humour

    michael mccarthy

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  2. Well written, thank you for the smile!

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  3. Cheers folks! This was my first-ever piece (written and published) so the comments mean a lot.

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  4. Finely judged tension, well written with a readable flow. Let's have some more!

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  5. Good stuff Rob; now how about writing without words like 'fuck' 'bloody' and, in a story set within the UK context, American slang such as:
    "You betcha." etc

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  6. It's ok to use American slang in dialogue, a lot of people now are addicted to US slang in everyday speech so it reflects the character's lack of imagination, not the writer's.
    An enjoyable story, in my opinion. Good black humour and a very original idea. Humour's hard to get right but you managed it well.

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  7. lol it was somewhat funny

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