No good deed goes unpunished for men like Jack Stone. His best friend lies bleeding slowly to death when a bad situation goes to worse. A favour's being cashed in. He can't say no. Not that he ever would. He owes Micky Brannon big time. Once upon a time they'd been the Three Musketeers, Micky, Chris Drury and Jack Stone. Then Chris had come back to Brize Norton in a box and Micky had lost his legs thanks to an IED.
Shrinks called it Survivor's Guilt, Jack called it being a mate.
Micky's baby sister, Carly, is in trouble. Jack's promised to find her and bring her home safe. She's not the innocent young kid he remembers—but then he hasn't seen her since she was six and called him Uncle Jack. His search leads Jack into a seedy underworld of sex clubs, violent crime, and desperate people. The locals call it Paradise, the girls trapped there call it Hell. Jack calls it home.
And when he thinks he's done... it's only just beginning. Because trouble has a way of finding men like Jack Stone.
This time it comes in the guise of an old school friend looking for a favour. A grand up front, no questions asked. The job sounds simple enough, an overnight drive down South, pick up some merchandise, bring it back up North. Nothing to it. But Jack doesn't do 'no questions'. When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. So Jack walks away.
For any other man that would be the end of it, but not Jack. A simple haircut turns into a front row seat for a shakedown and his innate sense of justice won't let Jack walk away this time, even if it means he's on the wrong side of the local mob. If he's going to help he's got to find an old cabaret singer from the 70s. The problem is she doesn't want to be found, and for good reason.
Jack's good at what he does though. It's only when he brings finds the girl that he realises just how badly he's screwed-up.
He's brought the devil to her door.
And now there's hell to pay.
I'd known Danny Bowen for ten years.
It felt like a lifetime.
We'd eaten together, drunk together, gambled, scrapped and gotten into far too much trouble together to be good for either of us. In other words we were mates. Old-fashioned take-it-to-the-grave mates. It helped that we'd spent a good part of our lives knee deep in shit at some other bugger's doing. Ours is not to reason why, right? Especially not when a stray bullet could finish you off before you'd squeezed one last fart out.
When I got the call I knew Danny was in more shit than a pig in pig heaven, and it was going to be left to muggins here to get him out of it. Those days in the army weren't wasted on me; leave no man behind, no matter how stupid the idiot's been.
There had been three of us: me, Danny and Chris Drury. The Musketeers. An IED had meant Chris made the journey back to Brize Norton in a coffin. And then there were two. We hadn't even been able to go to the funeral to say goodbye. I hated that. It grated in my gut. Live together, die together. That was the thing we'd always promised each other. It wasn't survivor's guilt or whatever the shrinks called it; I'd seen enough to know it was fifty-fifty who was the lucky one. The guilt thing though, that's strong. It makes ghosts for us. I knew that he'd strayed off-plan. If we'd stuck together it might not have played out that way.
Might: it's a hopeful word. Not as powerful as yet, yet means it will happen. I always like when a girl says we haven't slept together yet. The inference is we will. It's only a matter of time. I've got plenty of time these days. But if I can't get a yet, I'll take a might. It's the next best thing.
A car pulled alongside me. Blacked out windows.
Someone wound the passenger side window down.
I waited for a moment before I did the same. Last thing I wanted was for the bastard to think that I was keen.
"Jack Stone?" the man asked.
"Follow me," he said. So much for nicey-nice. It didn't matter. I knew who they worked for: Tommy Dawson.
Dawson was a low-rent hood. He ran a string of nightclubs and lap dancing joints, but that wasn't where the majority of his money came from. Half the working girls in Newborough were under Dawson's wing, and the other half tried to keep out of his way. The police knew only too well what was going on, but the way it worked was this: there were the haves and the have-nots when it came to the boys in blue. The haves had a nice little regular contribution to their pension fund coming their way from Tommy D. The have-nots were afraid for their families. That was the cost of walking the thin blue line. The problem was you couldn't exactly go up to one of them and ask if they were in Tommy D's pocket. So, Plan B it had to be: and off I was on my merry way, unarmed, without backup, to meet the big I Am.
I followed the car. We drove slowly through some of the seedier parts of the city, the boarded-up shops with their layers of desperate graffiti sprayed across them and half-empty blocks of flats people were desperate to get out of. I knew the neighbourhood well. It was one of those places the police find it easier to turn a blind eye than to get involved. That isn't to say they don't try. Every now and then some earnest young copper will think he can save one of the kids on the estate and will end up with his heart broken.
I was not surprised when the car I was following pulled into the car park of the Half Moon.
The two men got out and stood beside their car until I joined them.
A couple of kids kicked a football against the pub wall. The graffiti said: Jesus Saves in big white letters, and underneath it, and Shearer scores on the rebound! It had been a long time since Big Al did any scoring. I really didn't want to leave the car. It wasn't that I was emotionally attached to it, but I was partial to the old Love and Money CD in the player and I doubted it'd be there when I got back.
"Don't go getting any funny ideas, lads," the passenger said to the boys as if reading my mind. Mind control's a useful skill. I wish I could get it to work on the ladies half as well. "We are here to see Mr Dawson."
One of the kids sliced his shot, sending the ball high and wide of the chalk line they'd painted for a goal. I guess even the kids knew the name. Maybe it was like invoking the bogeyman, say his name three times and Tommy D turns up?
If you had asked me to describe the interior of the Half Moon before I'd set foot inside the front door I wouldn't have been far off the mark.
A beer-sticky carpet, torn upholstery on the seats, the flashing lights of the fruit machine rigged not to pay out more than scraps, and of course the shaven-headed football hooligans with their tattooed necks, five bellies and Pit Bull Terriers that growled as I entered. The dogs growled, not the men.
Of course, the big thing, the single defining thing that made this shithole just like every other shithole imaginable, was the thick fog of cigarette smoke. Sure, it's years since the smoking ban came into place, but that really didn't matter. Here, Dawson's Law was in full swing. If Tommy D said you could smoke, not only could you smoke, you really had to. Like a fucking chimney.
The barman gave a nod and one of my escorts pushed through a door at the back that led to a flight of stairs. We made our way up. I was in a sandwich with the driver behind me and the passenger in front. They really didn't know me very well if they thought I was going to run. Before we went through the door at the top, the driver patted me down. He looked at me like I was a moron for not carrying, but it would have been even more moronic to try to smuggle a weapon inside. Besides, thanks to Her Majesty, I was all the weapon I needed. The passenger knocked on the door and waited for the summons.
I followed them in.
Danny was in a bad way; his face looked like he had gone ten rounds with a decent heavyweight. Danny was no more than a welterweight himself. Short and lean. No room for extra fat. And this particular heavyweight obviously had some interesting jewellery on his knuckles and a blatant disregard for the Marquess of Queensberry. Danny being tied to a chair wasn't exactly sporting.
There was no point asking if he was okay.
He was anything but.
"Mr Stone." It wasn't a question.
The man didn't need to say who he was; the body language of the rest of the men in the room made it clear he was the Boss. This was Tommy Dawson. I looked him up and down. His hands were clean, no bruises on the knuckles. They were labourer's hands but it was obvious he hadn't been getting his hands dirty with Danny. Which meant I owed one of the other two heavies in the room. I am big on paying back debts, especially for my friends.
"Your friend here thinks that you might be the one person who can help get him out of the spot of bother he's in," Tommy D said.
"If this is a 'spot of bother' I'd hate to see the mess you make of someone who really pisses you off."
"You're a bit of a clown, aren't you, Stone?"
"Don't be modest, I like a man with a sense of humour. You can be as funny as you like as long as you deliver the goods." The inference was plain: otherwise that chair will be empty when you get back. He didn't insult me by actually saying it out loud.
"What do you want?"
"What no pillow talk? No sweet nothings?" He sighed theatrically.
"The sooner I get this done, the sooner I can get Danny to the ER."
"Give him the address," Tommy D said to one of the goons that had brought me in. He fished inside his pocket for a piece of paper and handed it to me.
"Okay, that just pisses me off, Tommy," I said. "Ugly here could have handed me a piece of paper an hour ago instead of leading me on a merry dance through the arse end of creation. Why waste time?" I took the paper without looking at the guy. I wanted him to think he was beneath me. I wanted to piss him off, even if only a little bit. A little bit pissed off was better than none at all. Get a guy angry and he's less predictable, sure, but it's good to know just how hard you have to poke the bear sometimes.
"Because you needed to see just how much trouble your friend is in, Jack. A visual demonstration is much more effective, I find. I could have said he was up Shit Creek without a paddle, but now you know just how far up it he is."
I said nothing.
Sometimes you don't need to.
I knew that was exactly why he wanted me here.
Tommy D was the alpha male. He wanted to look me in the eye when he gave the orders. He wanted me to know he was the boss. He was stamping his authority on me. If he'd been a dog he'd have been pissing all over me, basically.
I let him go on thinking he was Alpha Dog.
"I want you to go to that address and collect something for me. That's it. All you have to say is that I sent you."
"I'm not a mule. Do I look like a mule to you? Why not get that bloke," I pointed at one of his grunts, "to do it? He looks like an ass."
"With respect, you look like whatever the fuck I want you to look like, Jackie Boy." There was no anger in it, despite the profanity. And that made him dangerous. A man who is in control and has others who will follow his orders unquestioningly is always going to be more of a problem than one who lashes out first and thinks later, no matter how big he is.
The heavy gave a grunt and cracked his knuckles but he said nothing. He was obviously smart enough to keep his temper under control in Tommy D's presence. He was like an iceberg though; it was all going on beneath the surface.
I glanced at the address.
It was a block of flats on the Springwater Estate, another area of urban wasteland, but on the other side of the city. It was a hellhole. It was also Harry Pinder's manor. Tommy wasn't about to go in there uninvited; it'd start a turf war. Pinder was that sort of crazy. Any excuse for a ruck. Some blood, some thunder, and he was a happy man.
Pinder and I weren't exactly on speaking terms, either.
Technically, they were more like "shoot first and don't worry about mourning later" terms. It had been a long time, but Pinder wasn't the kind of guy who let bygones be bygones. The only water that went under his bridge had people he didn't like floating face down in it.
I was going to have to watch my back.
"And they will be expecting me?"
"They'll be expecting someone."
Yeah, I bet they would be.
So, Tommy D's grand plan was to use me to spring whatever trap Pinder had set for him. Lovely. If I was killed Dawson wouldn't have to go to war. I'd be collateral damage, sure, but he wouldn't lose face. The only thing he'd lose was the parcel I'd been sent to collect.
And maybe, just maybe, I'd pull it off. As far as Tommy was concerned, that was what they called a win-win.