The Espion Series, Book Two
by A B Potts
Published in 2012 by FeedARead.com Publishing – Arts Council funded.
Copyright © Anni B Potts, 2012
The right of A B Potts to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
This book is a work of fiction. All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
The Espion Series
Although this is the second book in the series, it is a story in its own right. It has been written in such a way that reading the first book is not essential, although it may add to your enjoyment of the story if you did.
Saturday, 14th February 1976
It was cold and dark in the alley and the drizzly rain made it all the more dank and depressing. A black cat, spiky and damp, cruised the bins looking for scraps of food. It stopped, its bright green eyes focusing on something that hadn't been there just a moment earlier.
The corpse lay face down in a puddle of dirty water, but it wasn't quite dead yet. Its breath made little ripples across the surface of the puddle. The cat approached, stopping at the edge of the water. It didn't want to get its paws wet. It sniffed the puddle and began to drink, all the while eyeing the corpse. The body moaned. The cat fled.
As his eyes flickered open, he hurt. Everything about him hurt. His face, his head, his hands, his chest, his legs, his feet. Everything hurt and he couldn't move, so he lay still, thinking nothing.
An hour passed by.
His limbs began to respond. At first, he could only move his fingers. He stretched them out to encourage the life back into them. Eventually, he found he could draw his arms up a little and later still, be was able to push himself out of the puddle. He was dazed, confused and weak. He couldn't stand.
Another hour passed by.
He managed to lever himself up into a sitting position, leaning against the cold, icky brickwork of the wall. He sat and waited.
The night drew in, colder and colder. Rats began to scurry around him and the wind picked up. Garbage blew down the alley. Filthy newspapers caught around him and clung to him. He didn't have the strength to rid himself of them.
A third hour passed by.
The rain had stopped. There were strange noises in the alley, new to his ears: a cat meowing, then caterwauling, a dustbin lid crashing against the ground, the death cries of a rat. There was a creaking noise from a large, heavy, metal door in the distance. Loud music escaped from it; someone was jeering drunkenly and voices were arguing. Then it slammed shut again.
Weakly, he pulled the bits of newspaper from himself and struggled to his feet. He stood shakily, reloading his databanks and began dragging himself down the alley. He'd never had to do a full reboot before. He had no idea that it would be so traumatic. What had happened? And then he remembered.
Fresh angry voices interrupted his thoughts. He looked up. They were ahead of him and just around a corner.
Painfully, Kylem made his way towards them, stumbling against the wall as he went. At the corner, he stopped and listened. He could hear the dull thuds of punches being thrown.
Peering around the brickwork, Kylem saw a group of three men shouting at and beating up on an old guy dressed in grubby overalls. They had him pressed up against an old truck and his head was flopping forwards. Blood dripped from a split lip. Kylem could taste the metallic scent of it.
The truck was probably the old man's. It had the words 'Pitelli & Son, Plumbers' professionally sign written on the side in old, flaky letters.
The leader, the one doing the talking, kept grabbing the man by the chin and tipping his head back to shout into his face. He was a short, fat man, dressed in a smart grey suit, white shirt, tie and a trilby. He spoke in a low, rough voice with a harsh Afrikaans accent, and he kept leaning into the old man's face, sneering at him.
The other two men stood on either side of the old man. They were stony-faced individuals, equally well dressed in suits but hatless. One was an aging, grey-haired man, tall and wiry thin. The other was young with a full head of thick, curly, black hair. Between them, they held up the old man so that the fat man could punch and intimidate him.
"Marco, Marco, Marco," he said, composing himself ready for the next barrage. "You should of paid."
"I owe Finn nothing," hissed the old man defiantly through his pain, his voice barely above a whisper. He too had an accent, a slight Italian accent softened by sixty-odd years of living in the UK.
"Now that's just where you're wrong, buddy," said the fat man. "Mr Finn is nice enough to protect you but providing that service costs money. He has overheads and you have to make a contribution to doze overheads," and he rammed another punch into the old man's guts.
Marco crumpled under the blow but didn't hit the ground. The two henchmen wouldn't let him.
"And now, Marco, you bleedin' idiot, you owe him so much money, da's only one way out. You got da give him da shop."
Marco laughed. "It's worthless."
"I know dat, Marco. It's just a shitty little shop, but Mr Finn wants it, so Mr Finn shall have it," and with that he pulled a gun out from the inside pocket of his jacket and pushed it up under the old man's chin.
"So, we gonna rough you up a little bit more, to make sure we understand each other, and den, first thing Monday morning, you're gonna go to da bank and arrange to sign da business over to Mr Finn. Do you understand dat, Marco?" but Marco didn't answer.
"Okay boys," said the fat man. "Beat the fucking shit out of him but try not to mark his face too much. We don't want da bank manager asking too many questions now, do we?"
"Yes boss," the tall man acknowledged.
The two thugs pulled Marco away from the truck and threw him onto the ground where they began circling around him like vultures.
"Leave him alone," Kylem heard a voice say, and then he realised that it was his.
The gangsters turned and stared at the kid. Where the hell had he just appeared from?
"Do yourself a favour, kid and piss off," said the fat man.
"That'd hardly be fair now, would it?"
"And you reckon you getting your head kicked in for a stranger would be fair? Christ kid! Looks like you just crawled away from one beating. Do you need anudder?"
Kylem didn't know what he looked like, but he could guess.
In the last twenty-four hours or so, he had narrowly escaped death in a mortar attack, been set upon and beaten by killer androids, crushed by the collapsing decks of a starship, and electrocuted with enough energy to fry an ordinary blood-thing to a crisp. He should have been dead but he wasn't, but then he wasn't an ordinary blood-thing. He was a humanoid/android cross, bred to be a perfect weapon of espionage and destruction. Yet he wasn't that either. He was far from perfect and he should have been dead.
The lethal explosion he had created by overloading the Trans Warp Drive 3 had been packed with enough force to destroy not just his former home: a spaceship, the DaerkStar known as DeathMaker, but the entire fleet and thus his entire race. So he should have been dead, but he wasn't and he didn't know why. Nor did he know why he was here in this street or how he got there.
As for his appearance, Kylem knew he was injured but his huma-nanites, the microscopic robotic implants that made him as much an android as a blood-thing, were doing their work and fixing his wounds although they had not yet finished their task. He was still bloody, beaten and covered in blast debris.
"No," replied Kylem, "but what we want in life and what we get are often two different things." This he knew to be true.
The fat man in the trilby took a couple of steps towards Kylem and pointed the gun at him.
"I shan't tell you again. Piss off, kid!"
But the gun didn't faze Kylem. He'd looked down gun barrels before and being an android designed without fear, felt no trepidation. He shook his head.
"Nah, I can't do that."
The old man, free of his captors, stumbled over to the truck and hauled himself shakily to his feet.
"Do as he says, kid. Get outta here. Go home," he heaved and coughed, spitting blood as he did so.
In the meagre light of the alley, its bright redness contrasted sharply against his pale, grey face and thin, white hair. Kylem shook his head again.
"As I've already explained, I can't do that."
The fat man lowered the gun and fired a round off at Kylem's feet. The bullet punched a hole into the dirty concrete and ricocheted, but Kylem didn't flinch. He'd already assessed that neither the shot nor the ricocheting material would do any significant harm to him.
"He thinks he's a big man," said the youngest of the mobsters. He also had a foreign accent.
"Want us to sort him out?" asked the older guy, pulling out a set of knuckle-dusters. He pushed them over his fingers, rubbing them affectionately.
"Looks like you're gonna haf to," said the fat guy, stepping back, clearing the path between Kylem and his thugs.
Perhaps if they had known that Kylem was a highly trained warrior, genetically engineered, part blood and part android with strength and reflexes far superior to theirs, perhaps they would have been a little less lax, a little more cautious, but they didn't so they weren't.
They sauntered over to Kylem and began circling him. Kylem's eyes flicked quickly from one to the other, assessing them. Suddenly the older man punched out. Kylem ducked, twisted around, grabbed the man's extended hand and flicked it like a whip. The old man screamed as he was flipped up and over. He somersaulted through the air and his feet flailed out towards the younger thug who just managed to dodge them. As the old man hit the ground in a crumpled heap, the younger one leapt forward at Kylem. Kylem dodged, turned and caught hold of him by his hair. He forced the man's head down and brought his knee up. The two made contact and Kylem felt the satisfying, sharp crack as the man's nose broke. He screamed and Kylem threw him aside like an empty fag packet.
Now Kylem turned his attention to the fat man, staring hard at him as he sauntered over.
The grey-haired old guy, still stunned by the attack, was struggling to his feet, but he was pretty much done for. Casually, Kylem kicked his legs out from underneath him as he passed by, and he stumbled back onto the pavement.
The fat man backed off and lifted the gun, aiming it directly at Kylem's forehead.
"Very impressive," the fat man said. "But I bet you can't dodge dis," and he began pulling the trigger. At the same time, Kylem could hear feet pounding up behind him.
Marco couldn't quite make out what he saw next. He had slid down the side of the truck and sat feeling sick and dizzy from the blows, but he could have sworn he saw the kid dodge the bullet!
There the boy stood, less than ten feet from Harry 'the Hat' who had the gun pointing in his face. He'd heard the footsteps too and turned to see Bubba with his bloody nose and face, running up behind the kid. His face was filled with rage and his hands, clenched like claws, were outstretched to grab the kid.
Marco turned and began to shout out to the boy, but he had already twisted his upper torso away from the fat man. The bullet sailed past him and bit into Bubba. Bubba went down screaming, clutching at his shoulder.
The boy then kicked out with one foot, ninja-style, just like he'd seen in the movies last weekend, and the pistol went flying out of Harry's hand. Harry's jaw dropped in awe as the boy twisted again and his other foot caught him full in the face. Harry fell backwards, smacked into the wall and slid down it, unconscious.
"Shit," mumbled Marco, struggling to his feet. This was going to mean real trouble. He turned and fumbled frantically at the door of the truck. His fingers scratched and clawed at the handle and finally, he managed to throw it open. He hauled himself into the cabin, threw himself into the seat and groped around for the keys on the steering column. He knew they were still in the ignition. He found them, turned them and the engine roared into life. He had to get out of there and fast. Flooring the accelerator, he sped away but almost instantly, he stamped hard on the brakes. What about the kid?
Via the rear-view mirror, he could see the boy stood in the alley, looking from Harry to Bubba to Alfred and back again. He couldn't leave the kid there, or could he? No.
He leant over and pushed the passenger door open.
"Get in, kid!" he screamed. The boy turned, looked at Marco and began ambling nonchalantly towards the truck as though he had all the time in the world.
"Today would be nice!" screamed Marco, and the boy picked up the pace and jogged over. He leapt nimbly into the seat and pulled the door shut behind him. The battered old truck roared off down the alley, out onto the street and disappeared into the dark city night.
* * * * *
As they travelled through the streets of Grimpton, Kylem peered out of the truck windows and marvelled at it. Marco glanced from time to time at the weird kid with the blue hair that was sitting beside him and wondered where the hell he had come from. The way he was studying the town was particularly odd, like he'd never seen anything like it before, and he hadn't; not a real, live city anyway. The only ones Kylem had ever been to were on Corinthia: cities in their final death throws; cities being ravaged by ferocious war. Here was calm and peaceful, and yet so busy.
Judging by the colour of the sky, it was the early hours of the morning. The chronometer on the cockpit controls seemed to confirm it although Kylem wasn't sure how he knew that.
At a similar time on board DeathMaker, night-mode would have been in force for several hours. Everything would have been calm and quiet as his Sallow masters slept in their beds but here, the city was alive. The streets were brightly lit with neon signs that advertised everything from Coca-Cola to strip clubs, casinos to corner shops. People tumbled out onto the streets from doorways, laughing and joking, and music spilled out from the nightclubs. With all the people that were about, Kylem wondered if this species was nocturnal by nature, but with so many artificial lights in evidence that was unlikely. He wondered if this planet didn't get proper sunlight anymore. Perhaps the atmosphere was so clogged with pollutants and smog that night perpetuated, but as he looked up into the sky, the night was cloudless and clear and he saw thousands of stars twinkling above. They were all foreign to him but the atmosphere was unspoilt. This was night-time, so what would the day bring, he wondered.
"What's your name, kid?" asked Marco.
"I see. Like that is it?"
Marco gave a little snort.
"Not anymore," replied Kylem softly under his breath, and he sighed deeply. "Not anymore," and he rested his head against the side window and watched the lights pass by. He felt sad and he looked sad.
Marco shook his head and turned his attention back to the road.
After about fifteen minutes, Marco turned the truck off the main road and into a quiet, dark street. Small streetlamps with little white lights lit the way, if somewhat badly. He turned down another road and then another, and with each turn the lighting became dimmer and dimmer and the buildings got tattier and tattier. At last he stopped the truck.
They were parked in front of a shabby little shop. The glass in the windows was dark and dirty, and the green paintwork, aged and cracked. Above it, in big white letters, were painted the words 'Pitelli & Son, Plumbers'. Kylem looked up at the 'shitty little shop' and smiled.
Marco turned the engine off and sat looking at the kid looking at the shop.
"Hey, kid," he finally said. "Thanks and all that but I ain't got nothing, nothing I can give you to say thanks. Couple a quid maybe, but that's it."
"That's okay. I don't want anything."
"Oh! Good," he said somewhat surprised. "Because I ain't got nothing," he added again.
Kylem turned and smiled dubiously at him.
"What?" demanded the old man indignantly.
"No! There's something you wanna say, say it!"
"Okay, but don't get me wrong, I don't want anything, but you have no idea what nothing is."
"Trust me, kid! I ain't got nothing!"
"That," said Kylem, nodding at the shop, "is not nothing."
Marco laughed half-heartedly.
"You heard Harry. It's a shitty little shop. It's not worth the land it stands on."
Kylem looked thoughtfully at the man who clearly didn't know he had been born.
"Okay, see this?" said Kylem, pointing at himself.
"This is it. Everything I have, you see here."
Kylem drew his hands up and down himself, indicating his attire. He was dirty, his clothes were tattered and torn and he was bloody (although he seemed to look less hurt than he had earlier).
"There's nothing else. Nothing. Nada. Nil. Zilch. This is it. This is what nothing is. Even my name means 'nothing'. Yet today I am a rich man," and the kid smiled joyously.
Marco stared at the weird kid who was becoming weirder by the minute.
"Because I am alive and I am free, and where I come from, those are two very valuable commodities indeed. Now you? You also have those things but besides that, you also have this mode of transport and a place to live. They may not look like much but you are prepared to fight for them so they must have some value, even if it's not monetary."
Marco studied the kid harder. He barely looked old enough to drink in the Black Bull, but he spoke and acted with an age and wisdom that no child should have. Marco wondered what had happened that had made him so old.
"And another thing," Kylem pointed up towards the shop again. "I may not know much but I know this. You say this shop isn't worth much, but if this Finn wants it so badly that he's prepared to intimidate you for it, then it's worth a hell of a lot more than you think. He obviously knows something you don't. He has plans for it, so don't let him screw you out of it. If he wants it, negotiate, but get yourself a damned good price because whatever he says he'll pay you, it'll be worth ten times that to him in the end."
Silence fell as Marco considered Kylem's words.
"That's very astute of you," he commented.
"Yeah, well," shrugged the kid, "where I come from, it pays to get inside other people's heads."
Marco's eyes narrowed and he thought about what the kid had said.
"Where're you from then?"
Kylem shook his head. He wasn't really sure anymore.
"A long way away," he said.
Marco pondered what the shabby kid sat in his van had said.
"You could be right," he conceded. "Let's face it. Finn doesn't want to be a plumber, and I should know." He was talking to himself as much as to Kylem. "We went to school together. We were even best mates once," and he paused, falling silent in the memories. "That was before he became a greedy bastard and a thug. You know," and he sank back, settling comfortably into the seat, "I thought he was running just another protection racket but what you say makes sense. What could he want with this place though?"
"You said you were friends?"
"We had a disagreement. He went his way and I went mine."
"And he's not come knocking on your door until now?"
"Nah. All those years he spent building up his empire, he never once came knocking on my door."
"Dunno, but about a year ago, Harry came around—"
"Harry 'the Hat' Higgins—fat bloke in the trilby. He said I had to start paying 'em money, protection money that is. You know ... pay 'em not to make trouble for me. I didn't take it seriously, not at first. I mean Eddie, Eddie Finn that is, he'd always left me alone. Why start on me now? So maybe you got a point."
They sat in silence, staring out of the dirty front windscreen arced with a clean rainbow where the wipers had passed.
"Well, thanks for the lift," Kylem suddenly said as he opened the door and got out.
Marco sat in surprise and watched as the kid gently shut the door and walked off. His eyes followed Kylem in the rear-view mirror as he wandered down the street and he sighed. He got out of the truck too and leant on the open door, watching the kid a little longer. The weird kid with nothing. The weird kid who expected nothing and asked for nothing.
Marco's eyes turned to his battered, old shop and looked upon it with fresh eyes. The kid was right. He did have something: a roof over his head and a warm bed. What did the kid have?
"Hey, kid!" he shouted out.
Kylem turned and looked back at Marco.
"You got somewhere to kip tonight?"
"I told you, I have nothing but my life and my freedom," and the kid grinned. He seemed truly happy with his lot.
"Look," he finally said, "I’ve got a spare cot inside ... if you want somewhere to kip for the night that is. It ain't much, but you're welcome to it ... if you want it."
Kylem looked at the old man and smiled. He was tired and it would be nice to sleep somewhere safe where he could close his eyes and not worry about who was going to try and kill him next.
"Thank you," he said. "I'd appreciate that. I'd appreciate that very much," and he walked back towards the shop.
Marco fumbled with his keys already cursing himself for having made the offer, unsure what had possessed him. The keys clinked together in the old man's shaky hands until he found the right one for the front door.
"Only ..." he suddenly added. Kylem looked at him expectantly. "Only you know Eddie Finn's gonna be round tomorrow, so you might want to get out early, for your own sake."
Kylem laughed. It was a joyous, excited laugh.
"Nah, don't be daft," he beamed. His eyes were suddenly bright and alive. "I'd miss all the fun!" and he pushed past Marco into the shop, winking at him as he passed him by.
Marco froze in the doorway. He had a feeling in his bones about this. He was regretting it already. Who was this weird kid, and what had he let himself in for? He followed the lad in through the door and fastened the bolts behind them.
Inside the shop, it was dark. Marco flicked on the light and one clear but very dirty forty-watt light bulb illuminated the room.
It was an old shop with a small, open space for the customers to stand in while the shopkeeper fetched their goods from behind the counter. Behind that, a range of pigeonholes and drawers stretched from floor to ceiling and from one end of the shop to the other. The range was interrupted by gaps that led to the racks behind. They stretched to the back of the shop and were filled with even more plumbing supplies: the bigger items like radiators, water tanks, baths and long lengths of plastic, lead and copper pipe. It was all very grubby, aged and decrepit, like the front of the shop, but it was warm and dry.
In the far corner, behind the racks, was a staircase and Marco headed for that. His feet tapped lightly on the bare wooden steps as he skipped up them and Kylem followed sedately behind.
While it may have been dusty and decrepit downstairs, the living quarters upstairs were clean and cosy, albeit rather aged. It was a monument to the early 1960s in décor and style with its once brightly coloured retro wallpaper that had faded over time, and there were two distinct areas to the room.
At one end was the kitchen and at the other, the lounge. The kitchen consisted of a cooker, a sink, a big American-style fridge, a small Formica covered table, four wooden chairs, an old kitchen cupboard with a toaster and kettle sat upon it and a wall cupboard above. Marco headed for that, opened it and took out a couple of simple, white mugs and a cafetiere. He filled the kettle and began spooning ground coffee into the cafetiere from a canister.
At the lounge end of the room there was a small, threadbare two-seater sofa and in front of that was a coffee table standing on a tired looking rug. There was a pile of old magazines on the coffee table, trade mainly but a couple of National Geographics caught Kylem's eye with their brightly coloured covers featuring exotic places and unusual animals. Against the far wall stood a small cupboard with an ancient black and white television set and a radio. One of those really old ones with a big, round dial.
There were three doors in the room in addition to the one by which they'd entered. They piqued Kylem's curiosity.
"Sit," said Marco, indicating the sofa. Kylem sat.
"I’ve got the room out back," began Marco, tipping his head towards the doors, "and there's a bathroom. It's not what you Brits call a bathroom though, 'cause it ain't got a bath but it's got a shower. The end door'll take you to the attic room where you can sleep. It's not much but it's clean and dry. The cot's pretty comfy but the window's a bit draughty. There's plenty of blankets up there though, so you should be ..." and his words trailed off as he arrived at the sofa, a mug in each hand.
Slumped on the sofa, with his head resting on the back, fast asleep, was the kid.
Marco smiled benevolently at him. In the dim light of the room, he could see the true state of the kid. He was covered in grey dust and smeared with sooty black marks. He had lots of cuts and bruises to his hands, face and knuckles. Flakes of dried blood were matted in his hair too. He'd obviously been in a tough fight. His clothes looked well made and expensive, perhaps military, but now they were torn and dirty. There were probably more cuts and bruises beneath them too. It looked like he'd just crawled out from under a demolished building, one that had been demolished with him in it, and Marco would know. He'd seen plenty of that in the war, but wherever the kid had come from, he'd really been through it.
Marco put the cups down on the coffee table and kicked the kid's foot. He awoke with a start.
"Go to bed, kid. End door. Blankets are in the wardrobe."
Kylem rubbed his eyes and did as he was told. It seemed like days since he'd last slept. It possibly was. He'd lost all track of time. Even his internal chronometer had given up on it.
The bare stairs creaked as he walked up them. He liked that. It would warn him if anyone were coming.
At the top of the stairs was another door. He pushed it open and found the attic room. It was smaller than the room downstairs, being in the apex of the building, but still quite spacious. The high ceiling sloped down steeply on both sides and at one gable end was a wardrobe and a chest of drawers, at the other, an empty bed. There were two small dormer windows set into the sloping roof and another round window high above the bed.
Kylem walked to the wardrobe and as promised, two pillows and a small pile of blankets lay neatly folded on the bottom. He threw the pillows on one end of the bed, lay down and roughly drew the blankets over himself. He fell asleep within seconds.
CHAPTER 2 : Sunday, 15th February
The headquarters of Section 69 were based in the city of Grimpton-on-Sea, not that anybody called it Grimpton-on-Sea. The 'on-Sea' bit was rather redundant. It made the place sound like a little seaside resort and, while it was by the sea and it did have some pretty impressive docks, that's all it had. There were no beaches or deckchairs, donkeys or funfairs and thus the 'on-Sea' only appeared on the envelopes of letters from outsiders; and it wasn't officially a city either. It was just a town but in all other respects, it was a city. It was certainly big enough to be one with its shopping centres and High Streets, sprawling suburbs, subways, docks, high-rise flats and derelict council estates, but it wasn't. So why were the headquarters of one of Britain's most elusive intelligence agencies located in Grimpton and not in London?
Section 69 had a rather turbulent past to say the least. It was established in April 1945 under the title of The Anglo-American Joint Operations Unit (AAJOU). It was a collaborative project between the British and the Americans that seemed like a good idea at the time. In February of that year, the Allied leaders had met at Yalta in the Crimea to discuss the settlement of Europe once the war was won. It had not been an easy meeting and with the sweet smell of success strong in the air, the Allies were starting to split, arguing about who would take what by way of the spoils of war. One thing was clear though: the alliance between the UK and the USA was strong, and Roosevelt and Churchill were determined to keep the Anglo-American relationship alive. So much had been achieved through that marriage thus far, with the sharing of information and collaboration of efforts, that it was only logical to continue that relationship to ensure the safety of Europe and America. Either that or both sides just wanted to keep abreast of what the other was up to after the war.
So it was that AAJOU was established, in secret, as an international intelligence unit, but it was immediately undermined by the problem of its own anonymity. It would have been disbanded almost instantly had it not been for two problems. First, having been established in secret, it would have to be disbanded in secret; and second, neither party had the temerity to suggest it to the other.
However, in the years after the war, as Russia grew in strength and the Cold War set in, AAJOU became useful. It was a small and little known organisation that its counterparts didn't take seriously. That lack of respect meant that AAJOU agents often ended up infiltrating further into the enemies' ranks than those of the recognised American and British intelligence agencies. AAJOU, although under the command of the President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, seemed to be autonomous, acting without accountability; a fact that galled both the UK's Directorate of Military Intelligence (Section 6) and the US's Office of Strategic Services. However, by the end of 1945 both agencies had undergone significant review. The Office of Strategic Services had become the CIA and Section 6 had become better established as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6). As for AAJOU, it was demoted and told in no uncertain terms to keep its nose out of political affairs. It was the beginning of its dissolution; a conclusion that both countries now desired, finding AAJOU a bit of an embarrassing expense.
Then AAJOU inadvertently found its niche, not in the political battles of the world but in the criminal ones: the drugs trade, money laundering, slavery, child pornography, gambling, arms trafficking, smuggling and general thievery. All activities that governments frowned upon and indeed, activities that their intelligence agencies battled against, but they were accountable and well known to the public. AAJOU, on the other hand, was still minor and few people asked questions about it.
The CIA and MI6 (MI5 too, for that matter) would subcontract sections of their missions to AAJOU, the parts that were particularly troublesome or embarrassing (usually the dirtier ones), and AAJOU was happy to take them. It was funded by two governments, had a pre-existing framework of agents and facilities in place and with its limited answerability, could tackle such problems unhindered. It could fight fire with fire. The criminal elements of the world finally had something to worry about: an adversary that played by their own tawdry rules, and they didn't like it.
During the 1960s AAJOU was outed, slowly but surely. It became publicised by over-eager journalists who had no idea of (and no concern for) the impact of such a revelation. AAJOU was blamed and criticised for a number of assassinations, accusations that were never officially confirmed or denied.
Finally, the USA and Britain were brought to task. They had to bring AAJOU to order and so in 1969, AAJOU's terms of operation were renegotiated. The Americans pulled out altogether and its head, Sir Guy Reynolds, got a whacking £100,000 retirement package and left England for his shiny new villa in Spain (at which he never arrived, but that's another story). AAJOU was rebranded and renamed Section 69 and became a small arm of the British Intelligence Service offering support to MI5 and MI6, both of which put in a bid to gain control of Section 69 and its assets. The Prime Minister however, opted to maintain its independence. Section 69 worked both nationally and internationally while MI5 and MI6 generally operated individually and respectively in those areas. In other words, while officially Section 69 had changed, unofficially, it had not.
As Paul King, the current Head of Section 69, entered the lobby of the building, he once again admired its beauty and décor and how well kept it was with never a cleaner in sight despite it being open twenty-four seven. Crime didn't operate nine to five and globally, nine to five could mean anything, so Section 69 never slept. Weekends were no different to weekdays. The same number of operatives watched international shipments, accompanied high-ranking businessmen all over the world and spied upon 'marks' at whatever time of the day or night. Thus it was that King was strolling into the beautiful Edwardian building on a bright Sunday morning.
He pushed through the revolving doors and admired the brass doorplates and knobs that gleamed beautifully in the crisp, white light of the chandeliers, with not a hint of Brasso to be seen. The polished, deep-golden oak panels shone and the scent of fresh beeswax hung in the air. The walls were tastefully bathed in light pastel colours with cornices bedecked in elaborate plaster flowers, vines and ivies picked out in slightly deeper shades. The heavily panelled ceiling depicted various biblical scenes immortalised in Renaissance style paintings, and the floor was carpeted in a rich cherry-red deep-pile carpet.
The lobby was ovular in shape with two fantastically carved staircases that wrapped themselves around the room. They started on either side of the entrance doors and wound their way up to meet on the top landing over the reception desk that faced the doors. Its symmetry was breathtaking, as was Gloria who sat on the padded, red leather chair behind the desk.
Gloria was not a young girl by any means. She was in her mid-forties but she was one of those women who was not only graceful but ageless. Her taste in clothes, the way she wore her hair, her makeup and her natural sophistication gave her an elegance that any debutante would have killed for. Most men gave her a second glance and she knew it. With her tight pencil skirts, stiletto heels, cropped haircut and vivacious personality, she lit up any room she entered. When those guys did give her that second look, she'd answer it back with a cheeky wink, and yet she was untouchable. Men wanted her but none were brave enough to touch. When he thought of her, King always remembered the little placard on the wall of the Black Bull . It said, 'Please don't ask (for tick) as a refusal often offends'.
She had never married either. As a former operative, she had never had the time nor the commitment. Indeed, she'd only been Gloria for a few years.
"Good morning, Mr King."
She spoke with a voice like satin, her words aristocratically clipped but not snobbishly so.
"Good morning, Gloria. Anything new in the diary?"
"No amendments, Mr King although I believe Mr Brimley has something for you," and she smiled. Oh! How he would have loved to believe that she saved that smile just for him. "He's downstairs," and she buzzed the lift for him.
King resisted giving her the second look that his eyes yearned to indulge in, so he stood in the lift waiting for the doors to close, feeling rather self-conscious as he stared past her, towards the chandelier in the lobby. He was not unaware though, that she was looking at him quite brazenly.
The doors finally closed and the lift began to move, but while most of the employees and visitors to Section 69 went up, King began his steady descent down through 125 feet of reinforced concrete to the heart of Section 69's operations area, and Gloria was forgotten until next time.
Imprisoned in this last, tiny time capsule of Edwardian sophistication, King awaited the shock of the reveal that was to come, that always came.
The doors slid open with a friendly ping and the stark, monochrome modern office unfolded before him. Sandwiched between the bright white fluorescent lighting hidden in the suspended ceiling of white and black glass panels above and the thick, black, deep pile carpet that showed every mark and hole punch dot that strayed below, stretched a showroom of furniture in tones of dull white, grey and glass. Staff moved about, efficiently undertaking their duties dressed in shirts and ties and neat little dresses while the temperature was thermostatically controlled and air conditioned at an optimum twenty-one degrees centigrade. King knew that many people would give their eyeteeth to work in an environment such as this, but not King. King was not impressed and much preferred the oak panelling and brass trappings of his office upstairs to these cold, sterile fixtures. He was old school and he knew it.
He had been in intelligence for over forty years and had seen it all, or at least he thought he had. In recent years though, he had come to realise that times were changing again and Section 69 with it.
Huge banks of computers had invaded the facility, and laboratories were being extended to house the vast array of new equipment and technology introduced by the world of science. Hell, they were even talking about being able to identify individuals from tiny flakes of skin!
Yes. It was all a bit much for King and he was having a hard time keeping up with all the memos and release notes that overwhelmed his desk each day. There was a time when crime was a simple affair. Now it was complicated by computers, scientists, laboratory technicians and specialists. He was starting to feel just a little bit old.
King strode across the room feeling somewhat depressed and sighed with despair at the hubbub and technology as he headed for the office at the far end. That too was a dismal sight with its solid glass wall that made it more like a display at a zoo than an office. It made him feel like a goldfish whenever he was in there and he hated that as well.
As the big glass door shushed shut behind him, the hubbub was suffocated and he stood staring at the meagre facilities described by architects with words like 'contemporary' and 'minimalist'. This was King's second office, but he much preferred the one he had upstairs with its big oak desk upon which the gilt had worn away. It was still a beautiful piece of furniture that even a calculator would have sullied the beauty of. It was his island of tradition and comfort in this horrible modern world of plastic and glass, but down here, he had to make do with what he was given; facilities that to him, were little better than a dining table. No, he was not impressed by its shiny, black glass top and brushed steel edges. As for the rest of the décor, it verged upon industrial. The walls adjoining the glass wall were bare concrete painted white, and the one behind his desk was hewn from the natural rock upon which Grimpton stood. He hated that wall most of all. How many times had he grazed his knees on its craggy surface?
He threw the empty briefcase that he carried with him every day onto it and it slid across the shiny glass. He tutted at it, sat down and waited for Brimley.
Barely five minutes later, Brimley burst into the room with the morning reports. He made King jump.
"Sorry, Mr King," apologised Brimley insincerely.
He always burst in through the door, King always jumped and he always apologised. It was almost ritualistic now.
Brimley deposited a clear, moulded, polycarbonate tray piled high with an orderly stack of files onto the corner of King's desk. King sighed heavily and looked at Brimley.
Brimley was a bumbling young man in his early twenties. He was a little overeager but incredibly efficient, and in this new world of technology, he was highly adaptable yet comfortingly traditional. He could handle a filing cabinet and pin board as easily as a computer and laser pen.
King glared at the files.
"I'll read them upstairs," he said.
"You know all this is available on the computer," proffered Brimley. King cast him a glare that instantly silenced him. " ...or not," Brimley finished quietly under his breath. King heard and scowled in response. It was cheeky of Brimley but he liked the man so he could get away with more than most.
King pulled the tray towards him and began thumbing through the files to get an idea as to their content. He smiled to himself as he noted the order and presentation of the files. Brimley may well be a bit of a twit but he impressed him in so many other ways. Besides being a dab hand with the computers, he was adept at organising and prioritising the reports that came into the office. He was a damned good Informations Officer, even knowing what the word on the local streets was. He would have made a damned good agent too if it hadn't been for his asthma and chronic acne.
"So what's new?" King demanded, remembering Gloria's comment.
"Harry Higgins shot Bubba last night," Brimley declared triumphantly.
"Pardon," queried King, dubious that he had heard correctly. "Why? What for? Are you sure?"
King knew all the local thugs, especially Eddie Finn and his crew. Even though they were most definitely the problem of the local constabulary and not his, he knew them of old.
Finn did not operate nationally, let alone internationally, so was not of Section 69's concern; a point the local Police Commissioner, George Bunts, had pointed out to him on many an occasion, usually when Eddie Finn had suffered some mysterious stroke of bad luck. Admittedly, it was often King's work that had set Finn back, because King was quite convinced that Finn had something on the Police Commissioner to ensure his protection. He was buggered if he could find out what though. It was the only explanation as to why Finn got away with as much as he did, and King wasn't prepared to let Finn run the entire town, regardless of Bunts's efforts.
"Oh, he didn't do it on purpose," explained Brimley and then he stopped talking. He clasped his hands neatly together in front of him and waited. He wanted King to ask him what happened, make King acknowledge that he was good at this sort of thing.
King smiled knowingly to himself and obliged, indicating for Brimley to sit, and he did.
Perching on the edge of the chair with his hands folded tidily in his lap and his legs tucked just a little behind the chair legs, he looked like a good little schoolboy. King on the other hand, tried to lounge in his uncomfortable, armless, over-sized, leatherette chair without falling off the side.
"Spill the beans then," he prompted impatiently.
"Well," replied Brimley, feeling just a touch smug. "As I hear it, Finn sent Harry Higgins, Alfred James and Bubba to sort out Marco Pitelli ..."
Oh yes, thought King fondly. He smiled to himself as the old memories came flooding back because, in this instance, he knew much more than Brimley did. After all, he'd been there ...
They had called themselves the Dock Boys. They had known each other since they were toddlers: Paul King, Marco Pitelli and Edward Finn. They lived in the same street and went to the same school. Hell, they'd even sat next to each other in class.
Marco Pitelli arrived from Italy with his father around the end of the First World War. Some said they had Mafia connections; others said they were running from them. It was all bull though. The Pitellis had lived far too humbly to be Mafia and Mr Pitelli had far too many principles to run away from anything.
Finn, not surprisingly, had been the leader of the gang and looking back on it, King could see that Finn had always been destined to become the local gangster that ran Grimpton. He now owned many local businesses and if not the businesses then their proprietors. He certainly legitimately owned four clubs and two casinos. He also ran (regardless of what Bunts said) at least eight brothels, a number of illegal gambling houses, most of the local drugs trade and various protection rackets, but that was now. Then, the three of them were inseparable right up to that day when the Dock Boys went on the 'big dare'. King didn't like to remember that night because he'd chickened out of it completely and left Marco and Eddie to it. It was probably a good thing too as something happened that night but he had no idea what. Marco wouldn't tell and Finn wouldn't talk but whatever it was, it was serious.
Marco turned up at school the next day sporting some cracking bruises and Eddie didn't turn up at all. In fact, Eddie never turned up again. It didn't matter much though; they all were due to leave school that year anyway, and so they all went their separate ways.
King, desperate to join the army, moved away from Grimpton and found digs near one of the Army training camps on the south coast. God! He had been so desperate to get in. He used to run chores for the officers, even managed to wangle a job in the stores, and it was worth it. By the time he was old enough to join, he had some superb recommendations and was marked 'for better things' very early on.
Marco, on the other hand, went into his dad's plumbing business, and Finn? Well, Finn just went into business, as a small time fence to begin with but he soon graduated into bigger things. It didn't matter to King at the time. He was away from home and was soon snapped up by the Intelligence Unit but that was yet another story.
Back in Grimpton, as the years passed by, Marco dedicated himself to his father's humble business. He was an idealist looking for a better world, just as his father had before him.
Eddie, meanwhile, matured into a real thug, hungry to be rich and powerful, and although the two men never spoke again, an uneasy truce was drawn between them. It had stayed that way right up until last year when Marco suddenly found he was no longer immune from Eddie's whims. Perhaps it was because Eddie had something to prove to his new son-in-law; perhaps that he wasn't old and decrepit. Either way, things changed. Marco resisted but that was a mistake. Marco wouldn't win. Eddie's men would see to that. Marco was, to all intents and purposes, a dead man. When the trouble had first started, King knew that it wouldn't be long before Marco's body was found floating face down in the river, so hearing that Eddie's henchmen had gone after Marco was no surprise. King sighed sadly.
"Okay," he said. "I'll take care of it."
Brimley was confused.
"Take care of what, sir?"
"The funeral. Marco Pitelli doesn't have any family so I'll take care of it. Can you inform the morgue please?"
"Oh, he's not dead!" exclaimed Brimley, surprise high in his voice.
"He's not? But you said—"
"I said they went after Marco Pitelli but they didn't get to him. No. Word has it the Mafia sent his nephew over from Italy to look after him."
King chuckled. That was rubbish if ever he heard it.
"Sorry, sir," said Brimley suddenly. "You just said that he doesn't have any family. Do you know Marco Pitelli, sir?"
Paul King laughed and leaned towards Brimley as if to reveal a dark secret.
"Yes, I know Pitelli very well, very well indeed. You've not been doing all your homework, Brimley. You see, I lived in the same street as Marco Pitelli."
"And Eddie Finn as well then!" interjected Brimley excitedly.
King scowled affectionately and Brimley piped down.
"Yes, and as far as Marco Pitelli is concerned, I've yet to see any evidence whatsoever of him having Mafia connections, let alone a nephew. So tell me about this nephew."
"Uhm," Brimley stumbled. He didn't have that much to tell. When he had come in, all he had was a bit of gossip. Now he was being asked for information on a professional basis.
"Well. He turned up out of the blue last night. Weird lad too. Blue hair," Brimley added disapprovingly.
"Yes, that's right, sir."
"A punk, you mean?" queried King, thinking of the snotty oiks who lingered in the park with their Mohican haircuts and safety pins in their faces.
"No, not a punk, sir. He just has blue hair."
King shook his head as if to shake off an annoying fly that had settled on his nose.
"Cut to the chase," he snapped.
"Well, this lad arrived on the scene and beat up all three of them. Higgins went berserk and tried to shoot him. Anyway ..." and he paused because he knew this part was going to sound really stupid. As gossip went, it was great stuff but as validated information, it was crap.
"Anyway, what?" prompted King.
"Sorry, sir, but you do realise that this is just gossip. It's not—"
"Yes, Brimley, and that's what I rely on you for. And what?"
"The lad dodged—" and Brimley made little quote marks with his fingers around the word 'dodged', "—the bullet and Higgins ended up shooting Bubba."
King stared blankly at Brimley, as though he’d said nothing at all.
"Dodged the bullet?" he finally repeated, sceptically.
"Yes, sir," said Brimley, holding up both hands in surrender. It looked slightly effeminate the way he did it and King found himself having to suppress a grin. "But I'm just repeating the hearsay. I didn't make it up."
Brimley felt deeply uncomfortable, as though he had failed in his mission. He was an Informations Officer reporting little more than tittle-tattle. He should know better. He felt ashamed.
"And Marco's still alive?"
King was pleased. He'd not spoken to Marco in the best part of forty years but Marco was one of the good guys; a good, honest, hard-working man.
"And what's this new superhero's name?"
Brimley looked dumb. He had not expected to be asked.
"I don't know," he admitted quietly.
King leant back in his chair and scrubbed his chin with his hand. He leaned slightly to one side and then braced himself sharply, remembering just in time that this chair didn't have arms. He crossed his own arms and stared at Brimley.
He had a feeling in his gut about this one, and his gut was rarely wrong.
"Find out for me, will you?" he asked.
Brimley sat mute, surprised that King would want him to.
"Yes," he finally said. In his surprise, he had forgotten the word 'sir'.
"Right away, sir," he suddenly blurted in an effort to correct the omission. He stood up and began to slink out of the room.
"And Brimley," King added.
Brimley turned, a feeling of dread churning in his stomach.
"Empires can be built on rumour and hearsay. Rumour and hearsay can bring them down. A good IO will remember that, keep his ear to the ground, listen, learn and verify."
King watched as Brimley, who had shrunk to nothing, straightened his back and stood tall again. He was still a little green but King liked that. An experienced IO would not have bothered him with the gossip that Brimley did.
"I understand, sir," and he nodded happily. "Anything else, sir?"
"Yes," and King screwed his eyes up as he thought. "While you're verifying things, get me everything there is on Marco Pitelli, Eddie Finn, Finn's family and his entire motley crew."
Brimley felt uncomfortable again.
"Sorry, sir, but ... is this an official enquiry now? I mean ... well ... they're hardly our department, are they, sir?"
"No, Brimley. They're not in our portfolio but they are on our doorstep. If anybody asks about it, just send them to me."
"Yes, sir. Very well, sir. By lunchtime, sir?"
"No rush, Brimley. Lunchtime tomorrow will be fine. Now, I think I'll go upstairs with this lot," said King gathering up the files. "Latest KGB reports in here, I take it?"
"Of course sir, but nothing very interesting so it's fifth from the top."
Kylem slept incredibly well. In fact, he couldn't remember ever having slept that well. It was a deep, refreshing and dreamless sleep and his awakening was equally luxurious, lazy and gentle.
Kylem had felt the early morning sun on his face only once before in his short lifetime, but it had not been magnified through glass like this, so its heightened warmth confused him.
Through his closed eyelids, he could feel its beauty first. It bathed him in its warm and yellow glow and when he opened his eyes, his confusion was not quelled. The bright morning light was blinding and he had to shield his eyes against it, but he didn't feel threatened because the physical sensation was so soothing and comforting. He soon remembered where he was but wondered if it was just a dream. Was he dead after all?
He concluded not. There were too many sensations and too much detail.
As the brilliant sunshine streamed in through the window and kissed his face, there was something else. The window didn't shut properly so a gentle breeze played with the curtain that hung there and smoothed his skin. It was cool and felt fresh and good, rejuvenating and purifying. The warmth of the sun hand-in-hand with the cool of the breeze. It was the most beautiful feeling in the world, and he felt so alive!
He lay there for a long time, watching and listening to all the things we see every day and consider so ordinary that we ignore them. The twittering of sparrows and the hooting of pigeons, so plain and dreary to our ears, were like music to his; and these dull little creatures were visually enchanting too. Where we see a very plain, little, brown bird, Kylem saw the texture of its soft, downy feathers that lay in haphazard stripes of black, white, brown and grey. He saw its grey hood, the black scarf it wore, its jet-black beak and bright eyes as it hopped and chirped along the windowsill.
A big, grey bird suddenly dropped down and the sparrows startled and flew away. Kylem sat up, alarmed by the attack, but the bird wasn't predatory. It had neither the beak nor the talons for that. It cooed and strutted across the sill, pecking as it went. It was the first pigeon he'd ever seen and again, he saw beyond the big, clumsy bird that we class as vermin. He saw the pinks and greys, the iridescent greens of its plumage and the brilliant white patches on its neck, the pink beak and the yellow circles around its eyes. It was so very different from the little, brown birds that soon rejoined it.
There was a shriek from outside and Kylem's ears pricked up. It wasn't the sort of scream he was used to hearing either. It was neither the scream of pain nor a battle cry. It was playful and childish. It aroused Kylem's curiosity so he got up and walked over to the window. As he approached, the birds scattered. He paused, slightly startled by their skittishness and watched them settle on the building across the street.
By the window, the light was brighter still and the warm breeze caressed his face more bravely. Outside, in the street, children were playing and kicking a ball around. They laughed and screamed and chased it. Kylem leant against the window frame and smiled. He laughed softly to himself and watched them for a while.
There was something else too. Silence.
Kylem had been created by a race of androids in a technologically advanced civilisation. As a blood/android hybrid, he had the ability to communicate as his android brothers did, by wirelessly transmitting and receiving information in the air and via Server. True, he had limitations in that while the androids were always connected to the traffic (the data transmissions), he had to consciously connect each time, but nevertheless, he was always aware of its noise. It was rather like standing in a crowded market street. You can hear the people talking but can't hear what they are saying unless you listen. But here, there was nothing. There were no computers, no transmissions and no traffic. It was blissfully silent. This was, truly, the most beautiful place in all the worlds.
* * * * *
When Kylem eventually arrived downstairs, he found Marco standing in the kitchen. The room was filled with wonderful smells. Marco turned to greet him.
"Morning," he said cheerfully. "Sleep well?"
"Yes, thank you, very well," and Kylem dipped his head subserviently as he began to make the traditional Sallow pose of syran (eyes closed, head tipped forward and forearms lifted with palms facing upward), just as he had been taught but stopped halfway through, realising that Marco was not a Sallow. What a creature of habit he was after all.
Marco pondered the halted gesture. It was in complete contrast to the boy's cocky, self-confident air of the previous night. Marco's brow furrowed as he looked at him quizzically and Kylem chastised himself for the action. He looked anxiously about and chewed on the inside of his cheek.
"You okay?" Marco asked with genuine concern in his voice. "I mean, I know you're running and whatever—"
"I'm fine," interrupted Kylem, but he didn't sound too sure. Kylem had suddenly realised the gravity of the situation he was in.
He was on a strange, industrialised world without significant technology. He was an alien being who knew nothing of these people, this planet or their ways. There was no IT he could hack into to find the answers to his questions, and he'd had no preparation for this expedition at all. He was working blind, but whatever the circumstances, if this was where he had landed, he would have to fit in and fast. He had no idea how these people would welcome an alien being but the odds dictated that it wouldn't be with open arms. People throughout the worlds were sceptical beings and usually feared the things they didn't understand or were unfamiliar with. Fear drove them to destroy the unknown for a variety of reasons, primarily to stop the fear but more worryingly, often to take it to bits to find out how it worked.
"Okay," conceded Marco, unconvinced. "Are you hungry?"
Kylem couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten so yes, he was hungry and the thought of breakfast made his mouth water.
"Well, get cleaned up and I'll get some breakfast. I've dug out some old threads that should fit. They ain't glamorous but they're clean," and he nodded towards the sofa where a neat pile of clothes lay folded. Kylem picked them up and studied them. They were quite rough compared to the fabrics he was used to, but he didn't mind.
"Middle door for the shower," prompted Marco, grinning at the kid.
Kylem smiled back, slightly unsure of himself and then opened the bathroom door. He stopped dead, did an about-turn and looked at Marco who was grinning broadly, like a Cheshire Cat, thought Kylem and then wondered what a Cheshire Cat was.
"Not what you expected, is it, kid?"
"I'm a plumber, kid. If there's one thing I really know how to do, it's how to put together a decent bathroom."
He was right too. The bathroom was another world.
While the rest of the property was dulled with age, the bathroom was new and beautiful, clean and bright, and its simplicity was modern, almost futuristic by this world's standards. He'd expected something really basic and functional, but this was palatial.
It was tiled from floor to ceiling in large, glossy, white ceramic tiles and the floor was laid in smooth, grey slate. There was a big vanity unit on one wall, with a large, white sink set into the worktop and shiny chrome taps. On the opposite wall was a large shower cubical, easily big enough for two people, and a low-level flush toilet. In between, sat an ornate, medallion-backed chair upholstered in fancy brocade. A flashback to one of the chairs in the cinema aboard DeathMaker caught Kylem unawares and he gasped a shattered breath.
Beside the chair stood a chrome rack filled with fresh, fluffy, white towels. The whiteness and sterility of it also reminded him of home, but in a good way. Kylem smiled and shut the door.
He walked over to the bathroom sink, looked at his reflection and tutted.
His clothes were little better than rags now and he was filthy. His hands and face were covered in masses of cuts and abrasions that were healing over, the dried blood and scabs flaking off to reveal the fresh, new skin beneath. That was the one advantage to being of android construction. His huma-nanites had been busily mending his bruises and broken bones as he slept.
Kylem took off his jacket and laid it on the vanity unit. He began to run his hands over himself to check the huma-nanites' progress. He winced as he reached his ribs. They hadn't quite finished their work.
Kylem stripped off the rest of his clothes and threw them on top of the jacket. The extra weight pulled the pile off the worktop and they slipped onto the floor with a dull clunk. Kylem glared at it rudely, suddenly remembering the thing.
Cautiously, he knelt down, picked the jacket up and felt the pocket. It was still there. The thing called the Eunaba. Had that been the means by which he had been brought here, or was it all the work of the trans-warp drive that he had intentionally overloaded to destroy himself and his entire race?
Kylem took it out carefully, handling it as though it was a very fragile glass cylinder filled with a toxic substance. He laid it gently on the vanity unit and knelt down to stare at it at eye-level. It seemed so inoffensive resting there, but he knew what it was capable of. He knew, deep down, that the Eunaba was what had brought him here. It was an instrument of the Arcadians that allowed the race to travel through time and space, but only an Arcadian could use it. It was linked to its owner by Arcadian DNA, but he was not Arcadian so why had it transported him?
But, of course, he knew that meant he must have been built with Arcadian DNA. As usual, as he asked the questions, his databanks gave him the answers, but not from the information downloaded into them by his Sallow masters. They came from deeper within him. It was part of his inborn knowledge: the gift of the Moroda people.
Kylem sighed. Once more, he was debating what he was. Technically speaking, he was built from dozens of alien races to form a formidable and resilient physical body to house an android. The android was formed from the billions of huma-nanites that had permeated every cell in his body, and just as human cells (when combined together and working in unison) formed his physical body so the huma-nanites formed the android. Yet it was more than that. The two had blended. He was neither one thing nor the other. His thoughts were not mechanical. They were as flippant and volatile as any blood-thing. So was he more blood than android?
Kylem stepped back from the Eunaba and looked at it a while longer before returning to the business at hand: the shower.
As the steam rose and the hot water pumped down hard onto his back, it was exhilarating and he found himself laughing quietly in delight. The soap bubbled readily and the water washed around his feet in angry red and black swirls topped with foaming bubbles as the grime of his former life was washed away. Even after the waters ran clear, Kylem lingered in the revitalising, hot rainfall.
When he finally emerged from the bathroom, Kylem was dressed in the clean jeans and tee shirt Marco had given him. They were a little big but he didn't mind. He was towel drying his hair when Marco handed him a cup of steaming hot coffee. Kylem drew in the scent of the drink and sighed as yet more memories flooded back. It smelt like kinga, the Sallow coffee he used to drink with breakfast every morning.
"Breakfast?" proffered Marco, handing him a plate.
The two of them sat down at the table and tucked into bacon and fried egg sandwiches washed down with copious amounts of the thick black coffee. As they ate, Kylem studied Marco. He'd not really had the chance to do so before now. When they'd met last night, he was still bewildered and concussed. He'd also had his attention drawn to other things. Now he could study the old man in detail.
He was sporting a few bruises and a split lip from the previous night but, despite this and his mature years, he was a man in good health. He had tanned, olive-coloured skin and thinning white hair that must once have been black. His face was cut with deep-set lines of age, and his neck and hands were sinewy from working hard all his life. When Kylem looked into his eyes, they were bright, brown and happy.
"You okay, kid?" asked Marco, who had noticed Kylem's attention on him.
"Yeah," said Kylem. "Why do you keep asking me that?"
"'Cause despite what you say, you don't seem okay to me, kid."
Kid. His father, the android, Mela 14, had called him child and now Marco was calling him kid. It caught him by surprise and suddenly he realised that he was not okay. He was lost. He was alone. He had destroyed everything he had ever known.
In an effort to subdue his emotions, to push them back down, Kylem leant back in the chair and scrubbed his face with his palms. He was trying to be 'okay', but he wasn't. He was anything but.
Despite the beauty of this world and the life that he felt, he still wasn't sure if he was dead or alive, and what about his companions? Where were they? But he knew the answer to that. Everybody else was dead. He'd killed everyone and everything he'd ever known. So was this the afterlife or was this real? Had he been catapulted here by the explosion he'd initiated, or was this just another dream?
"Look, kid," said Marco. "I know you're running—"
"I'm not running," snapped Kylem. Then he bit his lip and reprimanded himself. "Not any more," he added softy. "There's no one to run from ... not any more."
Marco stared at the kid. That sounded ominous.
"Sounds like serious stuff, kid."
Kylem laughed weakly. He didn't like being called kid. It reminded him too much of his father.
"Can you not keep calling me kid please? I'm not a kid. My name is Kylem."
Marco shrugged. "Kylem what?"
"Don't be stupid. Everybody has a surname. Look, kid—Kylem, here's a tip: if you don't want to tell anyone your surname, make one up otherwise they'll just keep on asking."
"What's a surname?"
"Your family's name."
"I don't have a family."
"Oh!" Marco looked down at his hands for a moment. "Sorry kid—Kylem. I sorta know how that feels. I never knew my mum either."
"I knew my mother! Sort of."
"You did? Tell me about her then. What was her name?"
"I dunno. I only met her the once."
"Oh, well at least you know what she called you."
"Yes. She called me Ptolemy."
"I thought she called you Kylem?"
"No, that was—" Kylem stopped abruptly and thought, "—an uncle, but she called me Ptolemy."
"Okay ..." Marco nodded. "And your father? Did you know him? What was his name?"
"Fourteen. Hmm. That's an odd name but then I s'pose so's Pitelli if you're English. Kylem Ptolemy Fourteen it is then," he stated matter-of-factly and tucked into the second half of his sandwich.
Kylem grinned. He had a proper name now, and he liked it. It sounded good.
"So where’re you from?"
"Like I said. A long way away."
"And how old are you?"
Kylem didn't know how to answer that at all. Technically, he was just six years old but those were Sallow years. How did they compare to years here? He'd also been artificially grown so he looked much older than he was.
"Where'd you go to school?"
Marco laughed. "Are you always this elusive?"
"Can I help it if you don't like the answers?"
"I'll take that as a yes. Okay, let's try a really simple one. What's your date of birth?"
Kylem looked confused.
"When's your birthday?" asked Marco, but Kylem continued to look blankly back at him. Marco rephrased the question again. "When did you first set foot on this earth?"
"Yesterday," replied Kylem.
"What? Yesterday was your birthday?"
Kylem felt uncomfortable. He had no idea what Marco was talking about and was losing control of the conversation. He was sounding like a bumbling idiot, and the last thing he was doing was blending in. His training as an Espion demanded that he should be inconspicuous and, if he were to carve himself out a life here on this planet, he'd have to start fitting in. But what the hell was Marco talking about? Birthday? And then the penny dropped.
"Sorry," he apologised and rubbed his forehead. "I'm rambling. I think I got hit a bit harder on the head than I realised last night. Yes, yesterday was my birthday," he lied. "I don't mean to be elusive."
Marco smiled. He knew he only had half of the truth.
"Finish your breakfast," he instructed and began to clear away the breakfast things. He refilled the cafetiere and poured yet more coffee.
"When you say you ain't got nothing, kid, you really mean that, don't you?"
Marco leant against the sink as he spoke. Kylem nodded.
"Well, look, I ain't got much either, despite what you think, but I can see where you're coming from, so ... well ... look," he hesitated. "I'm getting on and I could do with a hand. I can't pay you much but you can stay here ... if you want to, that is. 'Til you find your feet ... or whatever."
Kylem smiled warmly. It was the best offer he'd had in his entire life.
"Thank you. That's very generous of you and I accept," and he smiled. Marco noted that he had a nice smile.
"Don't you wanna think about it first?" quizzed Marco.
"I did," replied Kylem as he brought his empty mug over to the sink.
"You're very trusting," commented Marco. "I could be anybody!"
Kylem thought for a moment and shook his head.
"No, I'm not very trusting at all, but I'm usually a good judge of character."
Marco's face erupted into a broad smile. He laughed and held up his right hand like a Red Indian saying 'hau'. Kylem looked at it and smacked it. It seemed like the right thing to do and it made Marco laugh all the more.
A loud crash rang out downstairs. The two men jumped, startled, but didn't move.
"That'll be Finn," explained Marco. "You'll have to excuse him; he can be a bit of an ape when it comes to civilised things ... like doors, doorbells, door handles and suchlike."
"He doesn't scare you at all, does he?" mused Kylem.
Marco shook his head.
"It's hard to be scared of someone when you've seen 'em piss their pants."
"What?" laughed Kylem.
"I'll tell you about it one day. You sure you wanna hang around for this?"
"Sure. Besides, I haven't washed my mug," and he winked at the old man as the door burst open and no less than six men poured in. Kylem grinned quietly to himself. It seemed a bit of an overkill; six men coming for one old man.
"Hi Eddie," said Marco, not even deigning to look up from the sink. Kylem, on the other hand, leant against the kitchen cupboard as he dried up a plate and looked them over. He instantly recognised two of them: Alfred and Harry Higgins.
Alfred was sporting a black eye, had one arm in a sling and walked with a limp. He also had a big bruise down one side of his face. Harry had two black eyes that peered out from beneath his infamous Trilby. He did not take the hat off.
Of the four new faces, two of them were thickset chaps. One was bald, badly shaven and wearing a cheap suit. The other was also balding, but scruffy in jeans and a dirty tee shirt. He smelt unwashed. These two, along with Harry and Alfred, deployed themselves around the edges of the room.
The last two men were a different breed altogether. One was older, about Marco's age, with thick, wavy, grey hair. He had tanned skin too but it wasn't a natural, olive colour like Marco's. It seemed more forced and artificial. The white band of skin that peeped out from under the gold ring on his wedding finger seemed to support that theory too. He had grey eyes, a square set chin and a nose that was slightly crooked. Kylem suspected it had been broken a number of times in the past. The man was tall, slender and lithe, and even in his old age, he was a handsome man who knew how to dress. He wore a dark-grey, Savile Row suit, silk shirt and tie. A silk handkerchief poked out from the jacket pocket and he wore a red carnation in the buttonhole. His shoes were black and highly polished, and he stood with his feet slightly apart, with his hands resting upon the ball of a cane that was planted firmly between his feet. It was an ebony cane, the top of which was a solid silver globe of, presumably, the planet upon which Kylem had landed. This had to be Eddie Finn.
Beside him stood a much younger man, equally well dressed and presented. His face was not reminiscent of the older man but his mannerisms and the way he stood, mirrored him. It was as if the younger man was trying to be an Eddie Finn.
"Mr Pitelli. You've not introduced me to your nephew," said Finn. His voice was controlled and calm.
"Eddie Finn ... Kylem Ptolemy Fourteen. Kylem Ptolemy Fourteen ... Eddie Finn," replied Marco expressionlessly.
Finn looked at Kylem. He made a small hand signal to no one of his henchmen in particular, but it was Alfred who scurried over and pulled out a chair for him.
Finn sat down and stared at Kylem all the more. The younger man came and stood just behind his right shoulder. Kylem neither blinked nor flinched. Finn raised an eyebrow.
"So, you're from Italy," he stated.
"No," replied Kylem.
"I suppose, you're not his nephew either?"
"Never said I was."
"Where are you from then?"
"No one place in particular."
Finn's eyes narrowed in mild annoyance. He leant forward onto the ball of his stick and hissed at Kylem.
"You owe me money, Mr Fourteen. You got one of my men shot up and I had to get him fixed up. That cost me money, money you now owe me."
"Seems to me, you think a lot of people owe you money."
"They do, Mr Fourteen. They do indeed."
"Like Mr Pitelli here?"
"Like Mr Pitelli."
"And what, exactly, does he owe you money for?"
Marco tensed. While he was happy to treat Eddie with the contempt he deserved, he knew it wasn't wise for a complete stranger to do so. He began to open his mouth to protest, but Kylem raised a hand to silence him. Much to his own surprise, Marco's mouth snapped shut.
"I don't think that's any of your business, Mr Fourteen," said Finn.
"On the contrary, Mr Finn, I've made it my business so I'd appreciate your co-operation."
Eddie Finn glanced at Marco standing beside Kylem. Marco shrugged nonchalantly while inside his head, voices screamed hysterically. Eddie chortled feebly.
"On your head be it, Mr Fourteen. It's called protection."
"Protection from people like you?"
Finn cocked his head to one side.
"If you will."
"So he pays you to leave him alone?"
"No. He pays me to ensure that everyone else leaves him alone."
"But nobody else is bothering him."
"Then my work is done."
"But he has me now."
"But you have only just arrived. There is an outstanding debt to be settled."
"I am not aware that he ever requested your services in the first place."
Finn tapped his cane nervously three times on the floor as was his habit when annoyed. He leant forward and studied Kylem. This young man was a little too cocky for his liking, but there was something else about this kid he didn't like; something that set him on edge. What was it? His lack of fear perhaps?
Finn's tongue flicked across his teeth while he chose his words.
"Mr Fourteen, you may not realise this but Mr Pitelli and I have been friends since before we could walk, and friends help each other out. If I saw a thug mugging him in the street, I wouldn't wait and seek his permission before intervening. I would simply act. The only difference is that these measures are ... preventative."
"But one does not usually charge a friend a fee for undertaking a heroic action on their behalf."
"One is usually granted a reward."
"Ah, you mean a voluntary offering of an amount determined by the grateful party perhaps."
"Yes, but often people can be very under appreciative, thus I determine the fee for them."
"You have a knack for justifying your acts, Mr Finn."
"It's not difficult when one is acting in the best interests of one's friends and neighbours."
"Such eloquent words, Mr Finn, but you waste them upon me. I know your meaning. Sadly, I have spent far too much time in the company of people such as yourself, listening to them justify their actions while terrorising those around them. I find you no different."
Marco shuffled about nervously. So there was a dark secret somewhere in the kid's past after all.
Meanwhile, Finn's right eye twitched.
"Do not toy with me, Mr Fourteen—"
"I am not toying with you, Mr Finn," interrupted Kylem sharply. "I merely speak as I find. Now, tell me, just how much is it that you reckon this reward should cost Mr Pitelli?"
"I believe that his account currently stands at £10,000."
"That's a lot of protection."
"Actually no, it's a lot of interest. That's what happens when you don't pay your debts. They accrue interest."
Kylem stepped forward and pulled a chair out from the table. He placed it opposite Finn, sat down and leant his elbows on his knees, knitting his fingers together.
"Your rates seem a little high, Mr Finn," he challenged.
"You have to pay for quality in this world, Mr Fourteen."
Kylem took a sharp intake of breath.
"Okay. Let's say Mr Pitelli paid you your ten thousand and I told you your services were no longer required. How would that sound?"
"Not good. You see there is a termination fee."
Kylem was thinking of a different kind of termination.
"Yes. When a contract is broken, a fee has to be paid by way of compensation for lack of notice."
"Oh, I see." Kylem relaxed a little. "A monetary fee."
Eddie Finn nodded just once.
"And how much would that be?"
"Oh, I don't know. Let's say ..." and Finn thought for a moment, scratching his chin. "Let's say another £10,000."
"£20,000!" exclaimed Kylem and laughed.
"It's a nice round number."
Finn's protégé bent down and whispered something into his ear. Finn turned to him and smiled reassuringly.
"Gentlemen, I have been remiss. I have failed to introduce you to my associate, my son-in-law, Mr Jonathan Bentley-Finn."
Marco huffed. Finn turned his head and glared with restrained anger at Marco. His eyes narrowed in disdain and suddenly Kylem got it. He understood the full scenario.
Before him were two little boys squabbling in the playground. They were mates, part of the same gang even, but one of them, Eddie, had decided he was going to be the boss. Sadly for him though, his pals weren't going to oblige. He could terrorise everybody else but not those that knew him best, like Marco. Marco knew all his little secrets and so Finn would never be a big man in Marco's eyes, only a small time thug, no matter how hard Finn tried to make Marco stand in awe of him. In the early days, it had been easier for Finn to leave Marco alone than to pursue the issue, but now things had changed. Finn needed to impress the younger blood stood beside him, his heir apparent, to prove he wasn't past it. Finn needed to crush Marco, humiliate and break him. On the plus side that meant it was unlikely that he would actually kill Marco. Dead men can't show respect and Finn desperately wanted that from Marco.
"Do you have a problem, Mr Pitelli?" asked Eddie Finn.
Marco huffed again but did not have the opportunity to respond further.
"Continue, please," prompted Kylem, intentionally drawing the attention back to himself.
Finn's cold, grey eyes migrated back to Kylem.
"Mr Bentley-Finn is my son-in-law and heir to my businesses from which I shall be retiring shortly."
That confirmed one point for Kylem and he nodded at the young man in acknowledgement. Jonathan Bentley-Finn mistook it for respect and puffed himself up.
"Jonathan is a little concerned about my negotiations with you but you see, Jonathan, this man—" and he indicated Kylem, "—this man can't pay me £20,000 because he doesn't have it and he has no means to earn it, so any deal I make with him is, as they say, a moot point. Whatever price he negotiates, he cannot afford it. The outcome is predetermined ... set in stone."
"Or concrete," muttered Marco under his breath, but his comment was ignored.
"I'm glad you feel that way," said Kylem, looking at the younger man.
While Eddie Finn gave only minor indicators of annoyance, Jonathan Bentley-Finn was much easier to read. His upper lip was stretched with tension and he was chewing agitatedly on the inside of his cheek.
"Then £20,000 it is," agreed Kylem.
Eddie Finn burst out laughing. It was forced and mocking.
"You're a gambling man, are you not, Mr Finn?" challenged Kylem.
"Indeed I am," confirmed Finn, raising his eyebrows as he pondered the proposal. "£21,000."
"£21,000? My, your interest does accrue quickly."
"On the contrary. There are out of pocket expenses to be considered."
"Ah yes. The medical fees for your man."
"And I have to compensate him for injuries incurred during my employ."
"Do you compensate all your employees so generously?" asked Kylem, knowing the answer.
"No, but Bubba is a very special employee."
Kylem pondered the proposal.
"As you wish," he agreed.
"Good. Now we just have to agree the terms. The debt is already significantly overdue so I believe a week would be more than fair."
"That's very generous of you," agreed Kylem.
Finn looked surprised. He hadn't expected the kid to agree so readily. Did he have money at his disposal after all? But, as he looked at Kylem, his clothes and his hair, he thought not. The kid was all talk but he wished he had made it twenty-four hours instead.
"As I say, I am a generous man, but after that time there will be forfeiture."
Kylem nodded in agreement.
Pitelli, meanwhile, was dumb-founded, his mouth hanging slightly open.
"We have a deal, Mr Fourteen. £21,000 by this time next Sunday morning," and they shook hands on it.
* * * * *
It took a few minutes after Eddie Finn and his cronies had left before Marco finally found his voice.
"Are you completely bloody stupid?" he screamed. His accent had taken on the thick Italian-American drawl that his father had bestowed upon him. "Where the bloody hella you gonna getta £20,000 from?"
"£21,000 actually and there's a way. There's always a way," replied Kylem calmly. It only served to make Marco madder.
"Not a legal one. Not a one that won't getta you killed!"
Kylem got up, emptied the grounds from the cafetiere and began to make a fresh brew.
"On the contrary. If life has taught me one thing, it's that there is always a way."
Marco closed in on Kylem so that their noses were virtually touching.
"Howa? Howa you gonna getta that a much money in a week?"
"Dunno yet. How much is £21,000 anyway?"
"Give me an example. What can you buy with £21,000 ... for example?"
Marco's eyebrows rose in disbelief.
"Where the hella you been livin'?"
"I told you, a long way away. Now answer the question please." His voice was quite serious, almost philosophical.
Marco's eyes boggled so large that they looked like ping-pong balls with dots drawn on them.
"I could buya the best part of two houses for that!"
"Ah. Oh. So, it's quite a lot of money then?"
Marco opened his mouth and various noises stuttered out but none of them were words.
"Oh, look on the bright side," said Kylem.
"Bright side! Whata bloody brighta side!"
But Kylem's calm manner was not to be thwarted by Marco's ranting.
"You've got a whole week without Finn bothering you," he explained.
"And thena what? Where do I find that sorta money?"
"Look at it this way. Yesterday you owed him £10,000. Did you have £10,000 to give him?"
"Could you raise £10,000?"
"If you had it, would you give it to him?"
"So yesterday you owed him £10,000. You couldn't pay him and even if you could, you wouldn't and for that, he sent his cronies over to give you a kicking. Today, you still can't pay him £10,000 and you still wouldn't give it to him even if you had it. Therefore, only two things have changed. One, the amount and two, the day of your demise. You've got a whole week off from Finn. A whole week where you don't have to keep looking over your shoulder. Isn't that nice?"
"AND THENA WHAT!"
"A lot can happen in a week," said Kylem, thinking about the last few days in his own life. "Trust me. An awful lot can happen in a week."
For a moment, Marco stood gawping and wordless. He shook his head.
"For the third bloody time. And then what?"
"Then we pay him."
"Still working on that one. Where is the money in this town anyway?"
"Eddie Finn IS the money!" screamed Marco.
"Yes. Okay. I get that, but where does he get it from?"
"Murder, blackmail, extortion, child prostitution!" exclaimed Marco, and his voice filled with trepidation. "Jeez! You're not thinking of doing that sort of thing too, are you?"
"God, no! But he must have other interests."
"Drug dealing, forgery, weapons trading, assault, robbery!"
"He wears a suit. Why does he wear a suit?"
"To look good!"
Marco's mouth opened but nothing came out. He snapped it shut and then found his voice.
"What are you getting at?"
"He's trying to impress people. He's presenting an image to the world of a respectable businessman so he must have a respectable business somewhere, or at least a respectable looking one."
Marco sat down on the sofa to think. Kylem finished making the coffee, came and perched on the coffee table in front of him handing him a mug.
"Come on, Marco. What are his, supposedly, legitimate interests?"
"He does a lot of buying and selling, I suppose."
Kylem debated for a moment.
"Too time consuming. I need something where money changes hands quickly."
Marco thought some more.
"Gambling." His voice was softer now as was his accent.
"Yeah. He has a couple of casinos. One's a really posh place with bouncers on the doors and fancy waiting staff. Modelled on some place he went to in Monte Carlo, so I hear."
Kylem made a mental note to find out about Monte Carlo later.
"Tell me more about this casino," he prompted.
"That's it really," shrugged Marco. "Swanky place on the other side of the river. Bit like one of those fancy gaming clubs you see on the telly." Marco laughed. "I reckon he's seen one too many episodes of The Saint."
Kylem made another note to find out about 'telly' and who this saint was.
"Go on," he prompted.
"He plays poker and he loves the fact he's got his own casino: The Midas House. Lots of suits go there with their broads."
"Wives, girlfriends. Where have you been again?"
"And he plays."
"Yeah. He loves to play, even puts up some competition games."
"Competition. Gambling," Kylem repeated, thoughtfully.
"And you can make a lot of money at gambling?"
"In theory," but Marco wasn't following Kylem's thinking yet.
"Yeah. That's Eddie's game," and then the penny dropped. "No!"
"No, what?" asked Kylem.
Marco shook his head and sighed.
"People have lost their entire fortunes on poker."
"We've got nothing to lose and besides, if people can lose fortunes on poker, it means people can make them too! Where there are losers, there are winners."
"Well ... yeah—"
"Tell me about poker."
"No, Kylem! It's not that simple!"
"Yes, it is."
"No, it isn't! Do you even play poker?"
"Oh, for crying out loud!"
"Look, if Eddie Finn can make money gambling, so can I."
Marco was desperate now.
"So in the space of a week, you reckon you're gonna learn how to play poker well enough to play in one of his casinos and win enough money to pay Finn back?"
But Marco already knew the answer to that question. It was written all over Kylem's face in impish delight.
"That's the idea," Kylem confessed. "It does have a ring of poetic justice to it, doesn't it?"
Marco buried his head in his hands to hide the smile there. It did have a poetic ring to it but it was complete madness!
"What, in the name of all that is holy, makes you think you could pull it off?"
"Dunno, but wouldn't it be fun to try?" said Kylem. He had the look of an excited little boy about him.
"Do you have anything else planned for the week?"
Marco bit his lip in despair, unable to hide the smile that sat there. Kylem's delight and enthusiasm was contagious but it was still a crazy idea.
"You're missing the point, Kylem. If by some miracle you did pull it off, Finn would never let you get away with it. He'd top you, sure as eggs is eggs."
Kylem didn't know what that meant either. He wished Kyamena was there to explain it to him.
Marco sighed. "Do you wanna die or something?"
"But," said Kylem triumphantly. "I know something you don't know," and he beamed like the Cheshire Cat image inside his head.
Marco rolled his eyes and Kylem leant into him and whispered, "I don't die that easy."
"I knew I would regret asking you to stay," he said. "This is all just a game to you, isn't it?" and he sighed deeply.
Kylem smiled and sat down heavily beside him on the sofa.
"I'm afraid so," he admitted. "But life is short and games are fun. So seriously ... poker. Do you know how to play?"
"Badly enough I know not to play."
"Do you know anybody that does?"
Marco clasped his hands together and twiddled his thumbs around each other as he thought.
Oh well. In for a penny, in for a pound, he thought.
"Maybe," he admitted.
* * * * *
As Marco and Kylem walked into the bar, Kylem recoiled, coughing at the acrid air thick with nicotine. It stung his eyes and jarred in his throat. He was about to comment when a loud bang startled him. He turned sharply to find the source, expecting an aggressor but found only a man beaming a great joyful smile and beating an empty beer bottle on the table in front of him. Suddenly the whole bar joined in, erupting into cheers, whoops, hollers, hand clapping and generally banging things onto the tables in applause. Shocked, Kylem took a step back and bumped into Marco.
"Not so brave now, huh, kid?" he mocked fondly and pushed Kylem over to the bar where Bertha leant across the counter to make herself heard over the clamour.
"Usual Marco?" she shouted in her thick Irish accent. She was a buxom woman in her early forties with thick, curly, red hair and badly applied makeup: blue eye shadow and bright red lipstick smudged across her worn and pockmarked face.
"First one's on ta house," she explained. "And what about you, young man?"
"Urgh, water will be fine, thank you," said Kylem.
"Water? Come on lad, it's on ta house!"
"Then make it a glass of your very finest water," and he beamed her one of his most charming smiles. She laughed back heartily.
As they stood at the bar, a large, ugly brute of a man walked up to Marco, grinning a wide toothy smile and slapped him so hard on the back that he nearly fell over. He then turned his attention to Kylem, grabbed him in both arms and gave him the biggest hug of his life. Kylem froze. This, he had not anticipated.
"Good on yer, lad!" the brute of a man exclaimed. "We're proud o' yer, son."
"You are? Why? What have I done?"
"You gave a couple a Finn's men a bashing and lived to tell the tale."
"Yeah, but for how long?" muttered Marco under his breath.
Kylem smiled. He knew that justice, no matter how short-lived, felt good. It was a good morale booster. The only problem was that what came afterwards could often be more devastating and depressing, which meant that losing could not be an option.
"So," said Kylem. "I take it that none of you are Finn fans?"
"Good god, nar!" exclaimed Bertha. "I can barely afford ta keep dis plaice with da money I haf to pay 'im. Now tell me, Marco, what haf yer got up yer sleeve dis toime?"
"Don't ask me. Ask the wise guy here."
The barmaid looked expectantly at Kylem.
"Uhm," said Kylem. "Anyone know how to play poker?" he enquired.
Unfortunately, poker was hardly the game of the punters who frequented the Black Bull. They were more the gin rummy sort of crowd, so there were no takers.
"Sorry, kid," said Marco. "Not quite what I had in mind, but Bernie'll be in later. He's the chap I was gonna talk to," but just then, as the gentle hum of conversation was returning to the bar, a voice rang out.
"I can play," and everybody turned.
It was little Kenny, which was surprising because Kenny was not a regular in the Black Bull, not since he'd left home, but today was different. It turned out he'd popped over to see his dad, who was a regular, and they'd popped out for a quick pint before lunch. They were an odd pair to look at: chalk and cheese. Albert Brimley was a solidly built, bronzed welder who worked on the docks and Kenny was a pale-faced junior clerk with chronic acne employed as a civil servant.
Kenny had learnt how to play poker while he was away at university and was happy to teach everybody the game, and the old guys were happy to learn. It made a change from the usual darts and dominos. They didn't play for money though; they played for matches. Someone joked that it was safer than playing for money in Eddie Finn's town; saved you getting kneecapped, apparently.
It was a fun afternoon and when they parted and went their separate ways, Marco was a bit unsteady on his feet. Kylem though, was stone cold sober.
As he had learnt from bitter experience, alcohol loosened the tongue. Once he had suffered from its effects but this time he was going to use it to his advantage. Everybody had been more than happy to fill him in on the local characters and answer his questions, but Marco still had his secret to reveal and now, back in the privacy of Marco's front room, the old feller was half-asleep on the sofa. Kylem nudged his feet to wake him up. Marco scowled.
"Leave me be, kid, I'm tired."
"Plenty of time to sleep when you're dead. I need info."
Marco tutted loudly and sat up, reluctantly.
"What?" he complained and Kylem began his fresh barrage of questions.
By six o'clock, Marco was beginning to feel like he'd gone through the Spanish Inquisition and back again. Kylem had wanted to know everything about Eddie Finn, so Marco had given him the lowdown on the Dock Boys. He even dug out his old photograph album and showed him pictures of the three lads together. The pictures were old and sepia-toned with nibbled edges, and as Marco looked at them, he spoke fondly of their schoolboy pranks.
"So what split the Dock Boys up?" Kylem eventually asked.
Marco puffed. "I don't wanna talk about that," he declared.
"Yes, you do. You hinted at it earlier, and it's important. I need to understand this man. You know he's dangerous and I don't want to get my head kicked in unnecessarily. So come on, Marco, spill the beans."
Marco laughed weakly and took a few deep breaths but waited a few more moments before he began.
"We were just kids ... 'n' there was this old fella. Grimper Jones, they called him; dunno why. Before the war, he had the butchers shop at the bottom of Marcum Street. He lived in the flat above and he was a really big, jolly feller. Christ, he must have been the best part of seven foot tall and about three foot wide, muscle wide though, not fat wide: a real Father Christmas sort of man, but that was before the war." Marco fell silent and Kylem let him pause.
"When he came back, he was only half a man; still a hulking great giant of a man but he couldn't talk no more. He stumbled about the place like he was drunk, grunting an' mumbling an' glaring at the world through his one eye. See, one side of his face had been blasted off in a mortar attack. He came back a real scary, ugly beast of a man: unshaven, unkempt an' his teeth rotting black in his mouth. He shouted and ranted at everybody with an anger that he couldn't keep to himself. All the local kids were really scared of him an' he never opened the shop after the war. He wasn't right in his head and he became a bit of a target. The kids would dare each other to throw stones at his place," and Marco fell silent again. Kylem could sense his guilt.
"And then we'd run away when he came out. He'd chase us down the street, roaring 'n' screaming but he'd never catch us. He couldn't run fast, not with his gammy leg. We'd get to the end of the street an' Grimper would have given up. He'd go back into his shop an' then you could hear his wailin' an' cryin'." Marco looked up, shamefaced. "We were real bastards."
"You were kids," said Kylem, painfully aware of the feelings of remorse that Marco felt. He too, had done things he wasn't proud of and for similarly feeble reasons. Because that's what you did or because that's what you were told to do. At the time, you bury your conscience, persuading yourself that because everybody else is doing it, it has to be okay, but deep down, in your heart of hearts, you know it's not.
"Go on," he prompted.
Marco sucked in a sharp breath.
"In the years after the war, the shop rotted where it stood. The council came out an' boarded up the big window an' shop door 'cause it was dangerous with the glass hanging out the way it was. Then that rotted too. Through the boards, you could see piles of newspapers and rubbish piling up. The meat cabinets were still there an' the butcher's hooks, an' they said that the big, rusty, old knives still lay about the place too." His words were a little slurred.
"Kids are cruel, Kylem. There were all sorts of wild stories about him. They said that Grimper Jones caught people's dogs an' cats, killed 'em an' cut 'em up for meat. They said he ate 'em but I don't think that was true.
"The big kids'd frighten the smaller kids with the stories and dare each other to throw stones at him an' then run away. Parents would say, behave or Grimper Jones'll come 'n' get yer, and the suchlike and then one day, Eddie had his big idea. He wanted to find out the truth about Grimper Jones. He wanted to get proof that he chopped up people's pets, so he decided that we were gonna break in an' steal one of his bloody knives."
Marco sighed deeply and paused again. This time for a long time.
"I don't remember it all exactly but Paul chickened out almost straight off. He was always on about joining the army an' becoming a spy. He said he didn't want to get into trouble 'cause a that. He said they'd never let him in if he got caught breaking an' entering, so it was just me an' Eddie. If I'd had any brains, I would've chickened out too, but I didn't.
"We waited under the railway arches until we saw Grimper leave his shop going to the offie for more beer. I can remember watching him hobble down the street, an' then, when he was gone, we broke in. It wasn't difficult. We rooted around downstairs for a bit. Christ, it was a mess, but there weren't any knives so Eddie decided to look upstairs. That's when I began to lose me bottle. I said I'd stay downstairs an' keep lookout. Eddie took the mick' outta me a bit an' called me chicken but I stuck to me guns.
"Jeez, I was so scared! I was stood at the bottom of those stairs an' kept looking up 'em after Eddie. So much so that I didn't see or hear Grimper come back. The first I knew of it was when the front door scraped open and Grimper fell in through it. He was so pissed and I was so terrified I froze to the spot. I still can't believe he didn't see me. Perhaps he was too drunk and maybe the dark helped but he walked right by me and went up the stairs."
Marco shook his head ashamedly.
"I should of shouted. I should of screamed to Eddie, but I was too scared. My mouth wouldn't open and my voice wouldn't work." He laughed weakly, camouflaging the shame.
"The next thing I remember, I was legging it down the street an' I didn't stop until I got to the arches. I can remember ducking down beside some shagged out, old tea chests an' hiding, waiting for Eddie. It seemed like forever but it was probably only a few minutes an' then I heard Grimper Jones start up. There was an enormous crash an' I saw Eddie hurling himself through the boarded-up shop window. The wood just disintegrated as he came through it. He hit the street an' rolled across the pavement two or three times, an' then he got to his feet and ran like bloody hell. Grimper burst out through the front door an' he'd got this huge, rusty butcher's knife in his hand." He laughed again but with more strength.
"It seems he did have a big, rusty, old cleaver after all. Anyways, he was bellowing nonsensical words an' waving the hatchet above his head an' when Eddie ran, Grimper ploughed on after him. Eddie ran like it was the devil himself on his heels an' to be honest, I think it was. I can still see the look on their faces: Grimper's, red with rage an' Eddie? He was so pale an' terrified. He looked like a ghost with his eyes bulging out of his head, an' he was covered in a sheet of cold sweat.
"He ran towards me an' then I ran too. We both ran. Christ, we didn't stop running until we got to the derelict factories on Bingham Road. I don't know when Grimper gave up the chase but we didn't stop until we were out of breath an' couldn't run anymore. We couldn't even speak to start with, then Eddie started laughing an' he called me a coward. That's when I noticed that he'd wet himself. I should of kept me mouth shut but I didn't. I retaliated an' said that at least I hadn't pissed my pants."
Marco's face grew cold and sad.
"One minute he was laughing and happy and then, after I said that, it changed. It was like the happiness just fell from him and his face became twisted, cold, angry. That's when he punched me and after I fell to the ground, he kicked the shit outta me.
"He changed that night and it was the end of the Dock Boys. Paul never knew anything about it and I never told anyone."
Marco fell silent. The story was over and Marco wasn't going to volunteer any more.
"What about Grimper?" enquired Kylem.
Marco scrubbed his face with one hand, as though trying to wash himself clean.
"About a month later, they found his body. He'd been bludgeoned to death upstairs in his shop. They didn't find him until the stench hit the street. Never found out who did it either."
"But you suspect?"
"I don't know anything, Kylem but I gotta good hunch. Like I say, Finn changed that night. Paul an' me stayed mates, really good mates, but the Dock Boys were done for. Then we left school. Paul went off to join the army an' I stayed here. I did my thing an' Finn did his, but we never spoke again, not as mates anyway an' until tonight, I've never told anybody that he pissed his pants, an' I've never told anybody that he did me over. I think he might have been sorry afterwards."
"Nah," assured Kylem. "He wasn't sorry. He just didn't want you opening your mouth. As long as you kept it shut, he left you alone ... until now. Something's changed."
"He's trying to impress Jon-Boy."
"Oh him. Yeah, that's what I thought, but I can't help thinking there's something else too. I just don't know what. Call it a gut feeling, if you will."
Marco laughed. Paul used to have those. He had a lot of those in fact. It was probably one of the reasons he had chickened out of the big dare in the first place.
Marco nodded in agreement and looked into Kylem's eyes, soft and understanding.
"Tell me, kid. How can someone as young as you be so old and wise?"
"Wisdom comes not with age, but experience."
"And what about youth? Were you ever young? Were you ever a kid?" he asked half in jest, but Kylem's answer floored him.
It was just one word but it was spoken in such a way that Marco knew that it was the god's honest truth. Marco knitted his fingers together around his now empty mug and looked thoughtfully at Kylem. Since they had met the previous night, he'd learnt so much and yet so little about this person who'd come from somewhere very far away and very different to Grimpton. Somewhere where he'd never been to school, yet he was well educated; where he'd never known his mother and met her only once. He had said that he was free, which meant there was a time when he wasn't. He'd also said there was no one left to come after him. That meant there was a time when someone was after him, when he was running from something or someone. Why would that be? Marco wasn't at all sure what kind of person Kylem was, but he felt he had a good heart. That was his gut feeling. He hoped he wasn't wrong. Marco decided to change the subject.
"So. You've learnt how to play poker," he said more cheerily.
"Urgh, sort of but I'll need some practise. I need to get in on some real games."
"You'll need stake money then."
"Got any?" asked Kylem.
Marco shook his head and chuckled. He leant back into the sofa and lifted his buttocks so he could reach into his trouser pockets and empty their contents onto the coffee table.
"So," he added, "you not only gamble my shop away, you're gonna rob me too."
Kylem leant forward and studied the paltry collection of coins and notes.
"How much is that?" he asked.
Marco shook his head. So the kid didn't even understand money.
Marco pushed it around the table with his finger as he counted.
"£2.43," he finally said.
Kylem licked his lips and puffed.
"That's it. So tell me, kiddo, how exactly do you propose to turn a couple of greenbacks into twenty thou?"
Kylem looked at the money on the table.
"Can I take the notes?" he asked.
"Take the lot, kid. You're gonna need it."
"Got any work lined up for tomorrow?"
Even Kylem knew that work meant money.
"Yeah, I gotta couple of jobs."
"Good. I have a feeling we might need it."