Homeless man Mick is offered a job guarding a scrap metal warehouse, but is suspicious of his benefactor's motivations; by Nick Wilding.
The headlights rushing past and the brightly lit storefronts glittered and twinkled, everything given a Christmassy look after the half joint and cider he'd just caned. He realised somebody was stood in front of him. Mick scanned him up and down. Shiny black shoes, smart trousers and thick winter jacket. Grey hair combed back and smoking a cigarette. Gold on his knuckles.
'Got somewhere to stay tonight pal?' the stranger said.
Mick held the man's gaze long enough to see that no immediate violence was threatened and went back to apparently looking at the shoppers whilst under the sleeping bag he located a wooden handle. He'd learned that it paid not to give much away unless you were sure about people, but also that being straight up aggressive was a good way to create trouble or get arrested. This neutral pose would do while he tried to figure this guy out. Wasn't a typical giver. Police maybe. Punter looking for rough trade. Born again?
'Yeah I have mate,' Mick said without looking up. He had a few empty flats he could doss in. Cold but dry, and safe.
'Fair enough. I just thought you might be able to help me out, earn a few quid.'
Mick cut his eyes and threw out a vicious stare.
'Aah! Nothing like that!' the man said with chuckle, seemingly unperturbed. He bent over and put a tenner in the hat.
'C'mon, I'll buy you a pint.'
The man nodded his head in the direction of the Prince of Wales two doors down and waited expectantly. No harm finding out what he wants, Mick thought.
The pub was busy enough that Mick didn't stand out too badly and there were no bouncers around so he slipped in easily enough, tucking himself into a corner while the stranger went to the bar. Cu settled at his feet. The dark wood and cosy bonhomie of a pub full of people just starting their weekend was comforting. Shortly the guy returned, squeezing past skinny twenty something girls in leggings and mini skirts. He set down the two pints of Guinness on the table, sat down and stuck out his hand.
'Johnny, mate,' he said, clenching a cigarette in one corner of his mouth.
Mick took the hand and shook it, nodding, but saying nothing, guard still up but looking forward to the pint.
'What it is, someone's dropped me in the shit. I need someone to work for me tonight. Fifty quid, cash in hand, and you'll be in the warm for the night.'
'You know the Green Lane industrial estate?'
'I've got a unit down there. Engineering parts. Quite a bit of scrap. I've had loads of trouble, tinkers mainly. So I have to have someone there now, and the lad who usually does it has disappeared on me, last minute like. All you got to do is stay there. If they see lights on and people around they won't bother. Any hassle just phone the old bill. There's a bed, TV. And a shower. Just for a night or two 'til the agency can get me someone.'
'I'm not being funny,' Mick said, 'but why are you asking me?'
'I dunno mate, when I saw you out there it occurred to me. I already called the agency, two of them, neither could get me anyone tonight. I'd do it myself but we've got a family do on. It's fucking sod's law, if no one is there tonight the bastards'll be back. If I can keep that place safe and help out someone who needs it at the same time, so much the better.'
His bright eyes settled on Mick.
'A lot of people don't trust the homeless.'
'I've been around the block pal. I know it takes all sorts. And don't get me wrong, but if anything happened you wouldn't be hard to find.' His eyes hardened slightly as he let this sink in. His smile returned.
'Yeah alright mate, you're on.'
Mick had done his mental calculations. It wasn't that he trusted 'Johnny', exactly, more that he couldn't see what the stranger had to gain by setting him up. Mick wasn't worth robbing, and anyway there was no need for a song and dance if that was what he wanted to do. The bloke could just follow him down the street, wait until it was quiet. Mick knew, he'd done it himself. Besides, it was the kind of thing that happened from time to time, random offers of work. Labouring, fruit picking, flyering.
Mick stared out of the passenger window as Johnny nudged the Mitsubishi pickup through the rush hour traffic, squeezing through double parked cars outside Indian restaurants and grocery stores as they crawled through the inner city towards their destination. A steady stream of curses and racist abuse slipped lazily from his mouth, half audible above the engine. After about twenty minutes they turned off the road and onto a small industrial estate. It was a cul-de-sac of half a dozen units, difficult to see what they were in the dark. Johnny parked outside the one at the bottom. A shoulder height brick wall was topped off with lines of barbed wire, a large metal gate blocking the driveway. Mick was reassured by the surroundings - it all fitted with the man's story. He knew there were often travellers parked up on a patch of scrubland five minutes round the corner. Still, he kept himself ready, just in case.
Johnny undid a padlock and slipped a fat chain from around the gate. He turned to Mick.
They walked around the outside of the building first, Cu scampering after them.
'So there's the office door at the front, big roller door at the loading bay, and a fire exit round the back.' He chipped an empty lager can into the shadows with a curse.
'All of the doors got cameras and alarms on 'em. Make sure there's a light on in the office, two minutes to do a lap out here every hour-ish, call the old bill if there's any bother'.
They were back at the front already, Johnny punching in a code on the door lock.
'C, 1278, all the corner numbers.' Mick nodded. In the small lobby Johnny groped for a light switch and opened the door to an office. A thin grey carpet, a filing cabinet in one corner with a radio on top. A computer monitor sat on top of a cheap chipboard desk with crumpled corners and a saggy brown sofa lined one wall, a trade calendar hanging behind it. Johnny turned on the monitor and clicked a mouse.
'That's your cameras. Internet on here as well, help yourself. Nothing illegal though right!' he said with a grin. 'There's a kettle and a toaster in there,' he nodded at a door in the corner, 'tea, coffee, pot noodles and that. Changing room is on your right as you come in, there's a shower in there. Here's the keys, have a wander round, just stay out of the engine room, there's wires and shit all over the shop in there. Don't want you dying on me. This is my mobile. I'll be round about eight in the morning and I'll give you fifty quid cash. Questions?'
Mick shook his head.
'Right then, cheers me old china! Get the gate for me would you?' Mick followed him out and replaced the chain on the gate. Johnny drove off, tooting his horn. Mick watched him drive away. He waited until he was sure Johnny wasn't going to reappear before having a good look around inside. In the main room it was exactly as Johnny had said, floor to ceiling metal shelving units with plastic bins containing assorted bits of metal in them, a few engines here and there, and a small workshop in one corner. A forklift and a couple of trolleys stood in one corner next to a small crane on four walls. Opposite that the engine room with an 'Authorised Personnel Only' sign. He checked that door to make sure it was locked. No nutters or perverts hiding anywhere.
Returning to the office he made a cup of tea before sinking into the sofa and fussing over Cu, who rolled on the floor with his back up. He reached over and turned on an electric heater, savouring the instant blast of warm dry air. Pulling a tin out of his jacket pocket he produced rizlas and began to roll a joint. As the warm cloud settled on him he smiled, happy with his luck.
After a couple of joints Mick dozed most of that night, but kept up his end of the deal. On his little circuits he enjoyed the cold clear night, enjoying the knowledge that in moments he would be back in a heated room that nobody was going to kick him out of.
Johnny returned in the morning, happy and full of the same geezerish bonhomie. He paid Mick and asked him to come back the next two evenings, as the agency wouldn't be able to get anyone until after the weekend. Mick enjoyed the cash and returned that night.
On the third night Johnny hung around, producing a bottle of scotch and a carrier bag full of lager. They chatted easily now, Mick letting his guard down, as far as he ever did. Bitter experience had taught him never to be out of reach of something handy and never to discount the possibility that someone, anyone, could turn on you in an instant. Still, he could drink with this guy. They swapped war stories. Drinking stories at first. Women stories. Little by little Mick gave away small pieces of his story. Wife divorced. Trouble in his home town. The business he'd run into the ground and walked away from. Johnny shared too. How he could never keep hold of a decent watchman and the agencies charged him twice what they paid the people they sent. He let flats, had this place, had a share in a boozer. Little of this, little of that. Done a little prison time, years back. Mick tensed up a little when Johnny asked him if he was using. But he told him the truth, fairly much, that he'd been clean for over a year and was trying to get his shit together. This seemed to please Johnny, who admitted that he had used in the past. Before the end of the night they were friends. When Johnny suggested that he could bring a caravan up and Mick could stay there, working the nights, for a few months to help him get set up and to save Johnny some cash, it seemed like a great idea.
Christmas came and went. Mick put the time to good use. He started working out again, doing hundreds of press-ups over a shift. He put a punch-bag in the unit and would go for long walks with Cu after his shifts, or sometimes for a swim. He cut back on the booze and spliffs, just a couple when he was ready for bed. He spent a lot of time reading, random stuff on the internet or books out of charity shops. He was eating better as well now he had somewhere to cook, and Johnny would often drop by with takeaways. Mick began to feel stronger than he had in a long time, and hopeful. His body thickened and his mind sharpened. He started to allow himself to think seriously about getting a real place, a proper job, college maybe, or some training.
He felt lucky to have stumbled across someone like Johnny, not a do gooder, but a real person who had a good heart. He'd never been much impressed with Church workers and others who had good intentions but knew fuck all about his world and could offer nothing apart from short term solutions and sympathies. For all their 'love thy neighbour' stuff none of them were about to take him in and give him a job were they? No, he knew Johnny had been a blessing and he leaned on him, keeping his distance from his old street friends, people he knew could easily drag him back down. From time to time Mick would get a night off, dropping him at the out of town cinema. Encouraged by Johnny he started going to an NA group, and he went to a clinic to get checked out, to see what damage the years of needles had done. When he got the all clear Mick could tell things were going his way. To celebrate, he took Johnny out for an Indian.
One February afternoon Mick walked along the same high street where Johnny had found him. He wanted to pick up vitamins from the little green hippy health food shop. He was trying to look after himself but it was also a chance to speak to the cute little crusty girl who worked in there. That was another thing that he was starting to think about again. Waiting to cross the busy road he paused at the kerbside. As he scanned left and right he noticed two people come out of the Prince pub next to the supermarket. It was Johnny, drawing on a cigarette and grinning as usual. Talking to a sharp faced skinny youngster. Mick didn't recognise him but the ground-in grime on the lad's tracky bottoms, his battered trainers and overloaded rucksack told their own story. Johnny checked his watch, said something and held out his hand. The boy nodded, made a thumbs up gesture and shook Johnny's hand.
Mick narrowed his eyes with concentration. As Johnny turned around to head off towards him, Mick stepped into the nearest shop, a newsagents, to avoid being seen. He didn't know why. Between the stickers and posters plastering the shop window he watched Johnny walk past on the opposite side of the road, pulling out his mobile as he went. Once he disappeared Mick stepped out of the shop and went straight back to the unit. Nervous energy gripped him, his stomach tightened around itself and he could think of nothing but what he had just seen. The boy wasn't one of Johnny's business associates, no way, and he was pretty sure he was homeless. Why was he talking to another homeless guy? He wasn't a professional do-gooder, meeting Mick had just been good luck for both of them. They'd talked about this before. Mick wondered why he even cared, and realised with a hot wave of embarrassment that he was jealous. Had he been played all along? Had Johnny been elaborately grooming him? The thought was unpalatable and he shut it away.
As he neared the unit Mick decide to forget about it, or to try. He didn't want to make a fool of himself over nothing, or fall out with Johnny just when things were coming together. Shut it away, see what happens. Be ready.
That night Johnny brought by fried chicken. He was his usual friendly self, smiled, made jokes but didn't ask any questions. They didn't talk about Mick's plans or what he had been up to. Something was definitely different. Mick decided he'd go as soon as he got paid. In fact he'd ask for a sub that night and slip off later. A voice inside him somewhere was trying to warn him about something but all he could hear was noise. Like the conversation of foreigners, the mood was clear but the details were not. His years on the street had taught him the importance of listening to these voices though, and he had a horrible feeling he had ignored them too long. Johnny sat a glass of coke in front of him and they raised their glasses.
Mick struggled to rise through a thick cloud of drowsiness. He realised his eyes were shut. Concentrating hard he managed to open one. A thin slash of light made him wince and he turned away. Both eyes open he blinked hard trying to take in his surroundings. The world seemed to be the wrong way round, and it took him a good few seconds to realise that he was lying prone on the floor, his hands tied behind him and his feet bound together. His head pounded, his pulse booming through it. The floor was cold against his naked skin.
His hands were tied behind his back and feet were bound together. Now he could see properly he made out that the slash of light came from the gap beneath a door. He was in a small room, a couple of meters square. He blinked hard and was disappointed to find that he remained in the room. The throb of machinery filled the air and over that, faintly, a radio. Next to him on the floor was a clear plastic drink bottle, apparently full of water. It occurred to him to shout for help but this seemed fairly pointless as presumably whoever was nearby was whoever put him here.
He tried to think. He could remember Johnny dropping by. Drinks. Something bad but he couldn't put his finger on what. Every misgiving he had ever had about the whole deal pushed its way to the front of his thinking. Johnny the rip off. Johnny the pervert. Johnny the gangster. Johnny the pimp. None of them added up. He had nothing to rip off, really. What would a gangster want with a nobody like him? A pimp befriending someone to turn them out made sense, but why this shit? And Mick knew that although he might appeal to a certain niche he was a long way from being high value cock. Not to be worth going to these extremes. Pervert then? Really, really, fucked up sick in the head pervert?
More time passed in a confused and scared half-sleep. Coming round, the intense thirst he had been feeling for some time finally got the better of him and he investigated the bottle. It had a soft rubber bite valve on it; Mick wriggled around until he could get his face over the bottle and he drank. It tasted like water. He drank all of it. Lying there he could recognise the smell of Johnny's unit, a mix of oil, cigarettes and pine disinfectant. He remembered the corner of the unit that he had never been in, accessed by the locked door that said 'Authorised Personnel Only', the one locked door that Mick didn't have a key for. The engine room Johnny had called it. Only now Mick thought about it, what engines? No need to go in there, Johnny said.
He awoke again. He saw the bottle had been replaced. He tried and failed to think of anyone who knew where he was. Mick had deliberately cut himself off from his street friends. It was the best thing to do if you were trying to clean up your act and he didn't want them to come here and screw things up for him. And even if anybody did know, so what? Why would they suddenly decide to turn up? Mick was a drifter, a homeless bum, and it wouldn't be difficult to explain away the fact that he had moved on. Now all of Johnny's guidance and encouragement started to seem very sinister.
He was in a big room with a high ceiling, but everything was obscured by a spider's web of transparent plastic sheeting draped around it. A door closed somewhere. Footsteps on the concrete. A sharp tug on his shoulder rolled him on to his back and he felt a sickening rush of vertigo. Staring down at him were four faces. He tried to scream and realised that his mouth was gagged. One of the faces belonged to Johnny, still grinning. There were two other men and a woman. He struggled to make sense of what was happening. Was it a fucked up joke? Porn? Was there a camera on him?
'Right then lads,' Johnny said.
Johnny and the two men grabbed the rope that bound his feet together and started to drag him across the floor. Mick realised that they were moving him towards a small crane, the type used to remove engine from cars and he knew that it was Johnny's crane, and that they were in Johnny's factory. They lifted his feet up and tied the rope to the crane. His head pushed painfully into the hard floor as they struggled with the rope. Then the pressure eased as the woman began to jack the crane and Mick hung upside-down. One of the men fussed with the plastic sheeting, rearranging it under Mick's head so the floor was completely covered. Mick watched Johnny unfold a case of metal hardware, knives and a saw. This was not a gangbang. Now he noticed several large blue ice boxes a couple of feet away. A large plastic bucket was placed directly underneath him, a neat stack of paper cups next to it.
'Mick, Mick, Mick,' Johnny said softly.
'You must have figured it out now. I must admit, I rather thought you'd have disappeared by now. But then I am rather good at what I do.'
He paused here, glancing at the others who nodded their agreement.
'Streetwise fella like you Mick. Shame on you. It's not a prank by the way. Nobody knows where you are.'
A warm feeling in his groin told Mick that he had pissed himself, and he felt the wetness roll down his belly.
'Ah good, nearly ready. See, for us to do this, certain things are important. You have to be in good health. Off the gear, good food, no VD. I'll admit it chum, none of that was done out of the goodness of my heart. Also, it's important that you are scared. Really scared. Are you scared Mick? Rhetorical question that. I can see you are. You are going to be good for us.'
Mick realised that the two other men had wrapped their arms tightly around his waist and thighs, as the woman knelt down and grabbed an ear in each hand. Between them they pulled him tight and held him completely fast.
'We're going to eat you Mick.'
A loud bang crashed through the air; Mick saw Johnny spin round away from him and felt panic in the arms of his tormentors. A second loud bang and a splinter of wood, clearly coming from the door next to the roller doors, backing on to the yard. Johnny grabbed a knife and started in the direction of the door but as he did so Mick saw the door burst open and three burly figures in sportswear and balaclavas spill through it, one wielding a sledgehammer and another a crowbar.
'Jesus Christ,' said someone with a thick Irish accent.
The bloody tinkers, Mick thought. Time ground to a halt as the two sides regarded each other. Johnny broke the impasse, charging towards the intruders with war cry. His friends seemed less enthusiastic as Mick felt their arms release him and heard slamming doors behind him. Johnny looked like a powerful guy but was clearly outgunned. The three spread around him as he moved forwards. He lunged with the knife at the man in the centre and as he committed the crowbar guy hit Johnny hard around the head from the side. He crumpled to the floor, where he received a violent volley of kicks.
The three moved towards him cautiously. The biggest one shook his head silently, before moving to the crane.
'Set him down lads,' he ordered in a strong traveller accent. The other two held him as the big man lowered the crane.
'Cut him loose.'
Mick watched one of the men choose a knife from the collection in front of him before getting to work on his ankles and feet, leaving the tape over his mouth in place.
'We just saved your life mate. Give us five minutes before you call the police.'
Mick nodded. The men jogged off out through the battered doorway.
Mick didn't call the police. In a short space of time his terror changed to rage. Johnny's accomplices had fled. Searching the building Mick found Cu in the office, where the lights were off. That's what saved me, he thought. They thought there was no one here. Back in the big room he found his clothes. He searched Johnny's unconscious body and found car keys. He also took his gloves. In the car was his wallet, stuffed with cash as usual, several grand. Enough to get started somewhere a long way away. The car would help as well. He shut Cu in the cab. Walking back into the building he knelt over Johnny, pressing a knee hard into his chest. He slapped him hard around the face several times. Johnny's eyes flickered and finally opened. Mick waited just long enough to see the lights come on before plunging the knife into his ribs.