Peter Brophy leant back in his chair. ‘I suppose that explains why Kuba punched me…’ he said, dazed. ‘Kuba punched you?’ said Marketa. ‘Kuba Waskiewicz?’
‘Erm…’ shrugged Pete.
‘Tiny Kuba?!’ Marketa hooted again, kicking her legs in delight.
‘Yeah, OK, I wasn’t expecting it. I was telling Jerzy’s mother and Kuba what his last words were and the punch came out of nowhere. Really, you can stop laughing now.’
‘It didn’t really come out of nowhere, did it? You called Jerzy’s mother a motherfucking asshole at her son’s funeral.’ She started laughing again.
‘I thought you didn’t want to draw attention to us,’ Pete said.
Marketa’s giggles subsided and a little tear of mirth dripped from her jaw. She took a swig of beer. ‘I’m going to let you into a little secret, Brophy, about Jerzy’s mother… You were right.’ She started laughing again. ‘Why do you look so upset? It can’t be the first time somebody’s called you a motherfucking asshole.’
‘Oh, far from it,’ said Pete. ‘I just thought… hoped, maybe, it might have explained why poor Jerzy was killed. And now, well…’
‘What makes you think there has to be a “why”? He came home, found a burglar, burglar stabbed him. End of story,’ said Marketa.
‘I don’t know… It’s just bits and fragments and… OK, the police arrested me after Jerzy’s funeral.’
‘Did you call them motherfucking assholes too?’
Pete ignored her question. ‘While I was at the police station they told me they’ve got CCTV pictures of the man they think is the killer. That’s why they released me the day after Jerzy was stabbed. But they haven’t put those pictures out to the press. I’ve been checking the websites every day. Nothing.’
‘So that makes me think they know who killed Jerzy. They don’t need the public’s help. This is somebody they know. And that makes me think that maybe Jerzy was killed on purpose.’
Marketa took a drink.
‘You don’t look surprised,’ Pete said.
‘Why did you think I didn’t want to meet you? Why did you think I was worried about being a target?’
‘What?’ said Pete. ‘I just thought you meant you didn’t want any of Jerzy’s friends to see us together.’
‘You’re a strange one, Brophy. Weird mix of clever and stupid. You tracked me down to where I work, but you don’t get this?’
‘I didn’t really track you down. It was an accident. I took Donna out to the Thai place over the road and saw you going into Carny. Pure coincidence.’
Marketa sniffed. ‘I don’t believe in coincidences.’
‘Funny, that’s exactly what she said.’
They sat for a moment, not speaking. Pete was almost used to the smell of patchouli now, but somebody rushed past, probably to go to the toilet, and the air was disturbed, and suddenly he could smell it again.
‘I’m sure he was killed on purpose,’ said Marketa. ‘If you have any brains in that big empty head of yours, you’ll just let it go.’
‘I can’t just let it go. That poor man virtually died in my arms. Tell me what you know, and then I’ll decide if I just let it go.’
‘No, just leave it.’
‘Fine, you don’t tell me, I’ll just blunder about until I find out what happened. I may not be clever, but I’m persistent. Took me just over a month to find you, didn’t it? But I did.’
‘I am trying to stop you from going the same way as Jerzy. And me. You have no idea at all. Not a clue.’
‘Then give me a clue!’ Pete thumped the table. A splash of beer found its way into his eye.
‘All right. I’ll tell you. And then you’ll leave it alone…’
Marketa Jelinkova ran her fingers along the DVD cases on the shelf. ‘You have too many of these,’ she said. ‘Where would I put my books?’
‘I’ll make you shelves. Come and sit,’ said Jerzy Gruszka, from the sofa. They both spoke Polish and Czech, but Marketa’s Polish was far better than Jerzy’s faltering Czech, and as a compromise they spoke English in private.
‘I can make my own shelves, thank you. Grandfather taught me. He used to make…’
‘Toys in his shed, and you used to give him tools. I know, I know…’
Marketa sat next to him. She picked up her Hungarian red wine from the coffee table, and curled her legs underneath herself, as she had done since she was three years old. She stroked the soft throw next to her, the one she had had to buy because Jerzy was such a man. ‘Seriously, why haven’t you ripped those? It’s not the nineties. You can keep them in the cloud.’
‘And why do you need books? You can keep them all on your Kindle. I like to have a thing, an object. The cloud is too… what’s the word, airy?’
‘Vague?’ offered Marketa.
‘Yes! Vague! Besides, you keep stuff there, anybody can steal it. Or delete it. Put it on a DVD and it’s permanent.’
‘What if somebody steals your DVDs?’
‘Who steals DVDs these days?’ asked Jerzy. ‘It’s not 2002.’
Marketa nestled into Jerzy, and he kissed the top of her head, breathing in the scent of her hair and that patchouli smell she carried with her all the time. ‘Tell me all about it,’ he said, hoping she would not tell him all about it.
‘It went well. Really well. They liked me. Not much more to say,’ said Marketa, to Jerzy’s relief. ‘Except…’
‘If I get the job they will need references from my last two employers.’
‘Oh,’ said Jerzy. He took a drink. Why did he have to ask? They hadn’t had sex for a week. Now he had ruined any prospect for that night. They might as well be married.
‘Consuela will be fine. But Karl…’
‘He’s a fucking bully.’
‘Yes, Jerzy, a very effective bully.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Jerzy. ‘I’ll fix it for you.’
‘No. I can manage him myself.’
‘I’ll fix it.’
‘Jerzy…’ Marketa was firm. ‘We’ve been through this.’
‘Fine… What will you do?’
Marketa sighed. ‘I’ll just have to ask him.’
‘Yeah, what’s the worst he can do?’
‘I don’t want to think about it,’ said Marketa, and she pulled the throw over both of them.
‘The piece of shit. Skurwysyn,’ Jerzy exploded. ‘Dupek skurwysyn.’ He kicked the coffee table, knocking over Marketa’s glass of Bull’s Blood. ‘What did he say?’
‘Jesus,’ said Marketa. She ran into Jerzy’s kitchen. ‘Why don’t you have kitchen paper?’
‘Fucking forget the rug, tell me what he said.’
Marketa dabbed at the stain with a cloth. ‘You need white wine.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Jesus. OK, I went into Karl’s office and he was sitting there and I said how much I had enjoyed working there and how fucking grateful I was to him, but I thought it was time to move on. And he is just sitting there smiling.’
‘Leave the rug, tell me.’
‘So he said that I was the best office manager he had ever had and if I wanted a pay rise, I should have just asked him. He said he felt I still had a lot to offer his company.’
‘Wait, how much pay rise?’
‘It doesn’t matter! So I said it was really kind of him, but it wasn’t the money. I wanted a new challenge. Time to move on. And he said lots of challenges there, and, besides, he’d be the one who would decide when it was time for me to move on. And then he stopped smiling.’
Marketa looked at the stain on the rug. ‘Get salt.’
‘Never mind the fucking rug! What happened?’
Marketa sighed. ‘I told him I’d already accepted a job, and I needed a reference. And he just looked at me, calm. I’ve never seen him so calm. And he told me the only reason I was still standing in his office is that I’m the only one who knows where we keep everything. He told me I have a week to get everything in order and then I have to fuck off. And I can fuck off if I think I’m getting a reference.’
‘But you need the reference.’
‘How do you get this job without the reference?’
‘I know. Can you please get some…?’
‘Dupek! He needs to learn.’ Jerzy was pacing, just to let the anger move.
‘I’ll get another job. The important thing is that I’m out.’
‘No, this is not right. He can’t treat you like this.’
‘What? Are you going to threaten him? We both know how that will end. Just let it…’
‘No, I’ll find a way to make him pay. I told you I could fix him. Nobody does this to my woman. I’ll…’
Marketa stood up. ‘What do you mean “my woman”? Is that what this is about?’
‘Do you think the wine will come out of the rug?’ asked Jerzy.
‘Fuck the rug! You think this is about you? That’s your first reaction, you’ve been insulted?’
‘No! It’s just…’
Tears streamed down Marketa’s face. Jerzy held a hand out to wipe them away, but Marketa slapped it aside. ‘My life’s falling apart and you’re angry because somebody has… what’s the word… tampered with your property? Nobody owns me, Jerzy. Not you, not Karl, nobody. I’m not doing this again. I did this with Petr, I’ve seen this movie. Fuck you, Jerzy. Fuck you.’
She pulled on her boots and jacket and stormed to the door. Jerzy pushed in front of her, blocking the exit. ‘You can’t go,’ said Jerzy, ‘I mean, please, don’t go. I’m not telling, I’m asking. I’m sorry. I’m really trying, you know…?’
Marketa looked at him so hard she could see inside him. ‘You have to stop this shit. I can’t cope with it, this stupid white knight crap every time. I want your support, your help, if I ask for it, but I don’t need any man to solve my problems for me. Not even you.’
‘I’ll try harder, you know? You know I don’t want anybody to hurt you. I love you, you know?’
‘I know,’ she said. ‘You promise you’ll stop this shit?’
‘Sure. So we can sit down, yes?’
Marketa took a heavy breath. ‘Yes.’
Karl’s guests walked past Marketa’s desk and straight into his office. They slammed the door. Marketa recognised all of them, but only knew one of them by name, Declan Moran. Two weeks before they would have treated her with some respect. They would have had to. But nobody was allowed to speak to her now, beyond the performance of their own jobs. She was a non-person, with only two more full days to ensure her job was redundant and that her daily tasks had been divided between the two personal assistants, and that they knew what they were doing. When she had returned to work the day after she had informed Karl she wanted to leave she found she had been excluded from the office tea round. The nights she and the girls had been out on the town meant nothing now. They could barely look at her.
A ping. Jerzy had sent her an email. She looked around to make sure nobody was watching and opened it.
‘I’m sorry again about last night. Maybe this weekend we can go here again?’
There was an attachment, a JPEG. She clicked on it. It was a picture of the two of them, one of the two he had bothered to print out. They were in Southend. She hated herself on that picture – you could see her chipped tooth – but Jerzy was smiling, which made a change. She closed the email and deleted it.
Marketa let herself into Jerzy’s flat with her key. Her key? It was not her key, it was the spare key. It would only be ‘her key’ if she moved in. When would she do that? She was starting to wonder if she ever would. She kept finding reasons not to move in just yet. Niamh needed to find somebody else to take on a London rent, she was looking for a new job, and you could not move job and home at the same time, could you? Too stressful. And, besides, all those DVDs! Where would she put her books?
‘Oh!’ she said. Jerzy was already there on the sofa, his laptop open in front of him. He looked sheepish.
‘What have I caught you doing, Jerzy?’ said Marketa. ‘I hope it doesn’t involve animals.’
‘Look, if you want to talk about your fantasies, maybe…’
‘No, it’s not that… Maybe what?’
‘Never mind. What is it, then?’
Jerzy scratched the back of his neck. ‘Listen, OK, I know I promised not to get involved with Karl, but I can’t help myself. I’ve done some digging and I’m going to get your…’
‘Jesus!’ cried Marketa. ‘I can’t believe you. You fucking promised not to get involved.’
‘I thought you’d be pleased…’
‘God, you don’t get it at all. You stood there and promised me. I can’t believe this. After everything…’
She yanked the door open.
‘Where are you going?’ asked Jerzy.
‘Where I want. It was your last chance, and you blew it. It didn’t even take a day. I’ll be back for my things tomorrow. Don’t be here.’
‘I’m helping you! This is stupid…’ said Jerzy, but the front door slammed and he was alone. He looked down at the rug. The Bull’s Blood stain was faded but still there, still obvious. If he could just get that clean for when Marketa came back the next day… Ah, she just needed to cool off. She had been under a lot of stress. This would all blow over. It would be fine.
After 10 minutes of attending to the stain with a wet cloth and detergent he thumped the coffee table with frustration, and played Tanz Mit Laibach by Laibach on repeat at full volume, until he heard knocking on the ceiling from the skurwysyn upstairs. Just an apology, thought Jerzy. All would be well.
Jerzy sat on the sofa, the soft throw in his hand, waiting until he heard the key in the door. He had left work early to make sure he would be there when she arrived. He had placed fresh flowers in the vase on the coffee table, and a couple of interiors magazines on the floor, covering the red stain… He was ready to give Marketa a lavish apology. His bed… their bed… had felt so empty the night before.
The door swung open, and Jerzy saw Marketa standing in the hallway. And, behind her, her flatmate Niamh, looking awkward, embarrassed, even. ‘Do you need time…?’ Niamh began, quietly.
‘No, this won’t take long,’ replied Marketa. She turned to Jerzy. ‘Why are you here? I asked you not to be here. Once again, you know best…’
‘I needed to see you, to say sorry, baby,’ said Jerzy. ‘Look, I even bought…’
‘I know you’re sorry,’ said Marketa. She stroked his cheek. ‘It’s not enough. And I’m sorry too.’ She turned to Niamh. ‘Just bring the boxes in. I don’t have much here.’
‘No, wait,’ said Jerzy. ‘I have an idea. I’m just helping. I’m not taking over… I know how to fix this.’ But Marketa was already in the bedroom, emptying drawers into a box. ‘No, Jerzy, you don’t,’ she said. Within 10 minutes every scrap of Marketa, every bottle of lotion in the bathroom, every book, every item of clothing, all the bits and pieces which had imperceptibly migrated from her flat to Jerzy’s, had been removed, along with Marketa, save for the throw she had bought him, because he was such a man, and the two photographs he had bothered to print out. And within the subsequent 10 minutes, Jerzy was curled up on the sofa, the throw around him, the krupnik burning his throat.
‘The bollix. You know who,’ said Niamh. She handed the receiver to Marketa.
Marketa covered the mouthpiece with her hand. ‘Why did you tell him I was here?’
‘I thought it was a PPI call. Look, just tell him to piss off. He won’t take it from me. He thinks I’m trying to keep you from him.’
Marketa took her hand away. ‘What is it? What?’
‘I tried to call you on your mobile for days.’
‘Yes, I had to block you. Leave me alone.’
‘Wait, I just need a second.’
‘And then you’ll leave me alone?’
‘I’ve fixed it. I’ve solved your problem,’ said Jerzy.
‘What’s he saying?’ asked Niamh.
‘Shh!’ said Marketa. ‘What do you mean? What have you fixed?’
‘I can get your reference from Karl. I have… leverage.’
Marketa’s heart began to thump, her throat tightened. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I found a way into his computer. Copied some files… You know… Things he wouldn’t want people to know about.’
‘You fucking idiot!’ Marketa screamed. ‘Delete them now.’
‘It’s not porno!’ said Jerzy. ‘I mean contacts, spreadsheets, ledgers… OK, there’s some porno, but…’
‘I know exactly what you mean! Delete them. God, you always have to show how clever you are. But do you really have any brains in your big head? How the hell did you get into his computer?’
‘Ahhh… Remember when I sent you that email? With the photograph? It wasn’t just some photograph. There was a little something attached, a Trojan… It got into Karl’s network and…’
‘What?! So I’m responsible for this? You’re going to blackmail Karl Chapman – Karl fucking Chapman – and it all gets traced back to me? What if he finds out? Just for a reference… God, are you fucking insane?’
‘I’ve told you, I’ve got leverage…’
‘And I’ve told you. I don’t need you fighting my battles for me. I don’t need you at all. You don’t get anything, do you? You think this will win me back? I’m not a prize, you stupid man. Delete those records and get out of my life, and maybe we both get to walk away from this.’ She ended the phone call.
Eight weeks later, Marketa sat in the coat check booth at Carny. It was… well, she did not like to think of it as ‘beneath her’, but she was certainly overqualified for the job. Her old boss Consuela had helped her out; she had a few contacts in the hospitality trade. And Marketa had been starting to feel nervous about being out of work. The lack of a reference from her previous employer was difficult to explain, even if you were well aware that Karl Chapman’s money did not come primarily from his scaffolding and skip hire businesses.
Her phone buzzed. An email from her brother in Prague. What did he want? Money, probably. She opened it.
‘I’m sorry for the trick. It’s Jerzy. I knew you wouldn’t open it otherwise…’
Marketa stamped her foot petulantly and felt briefly embarrassed. It had been weeks since he had tried to get in touch. She thought he had got the message.
‘I wanted to reassure you,’ it went on. ‘I have fixed everything with Karl. He knows you were not involved, that we are not together for now, and he was actually impressed by what I had done. He even offered me a job. LOL
‘I am not stupid. I told him I had hidden away the files safely as insurance and as long as he left us alone, everything would be fine. And we shook hands. He said he understood. If he thought somebody had upset his woman he would have taken steps. I didn’t tell him you don’t like that sort of talk. LOL So all is OK. I hope you are doing OK.
‘Always, Jerzy. X’
‘Bloody hell,’ said Peter Brophy. ‘Do you really think Karl Chapman did this?’
‘I know he’s capable of it. You’ve heard the stories,’ said Marketa.
‘Karl Chapman, though. Christ. Did you ever see…?’
‘No, he wasn’t stupid. He never did anything in the office. Meetings, yes, but he made sure the girls and I were not listening in the dark.’
‘Jesus, be quiet, will you?’ Marketa’s eyes swept the pub.
‘Sorry,’ he whispered. ‘Murder, though? Over that? Jesus, what was in the files?’
‘I don’t know! I didn’t want to know… Did he… When he died, did he have his laptop?’
‘No,’ said Pete.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Believe me, if there had been a laptop there I’d have remembered.’
Marketa picked up a beermat and spun it with her fingers on the table top. ‘Whoever killed him took his laptop. He always had his laptop with him when he went out.’
‘Could have been a burglar, I suppose,’ said Pete.
‘I don’t think so.’
‘No… You really do think it was Chapman, don’t you? God, you took a risk going to the funeral. What if one of his people saw you? No wonder you didn’t stick around.’
‘I had to go. It’s my fault he’s dead,’ said Marketa. She looked down, as if she did not want Pete to see she was crying, just a little. But even Pete could see. ‘And I did love him once. He was trying to help me, in his stupid way, and to fix things, and they killed him for it.’
‘It’s not your fault. You can’t say that.’
‘Don’t you tell me what I can say.’
‘We have to tell the police,’ said Pete.
‘Don’t be ridiculous. Tell them what? There’s no proof of anything.’
‘But what? We tell the police Karl Chapman killed Jerzy. They arrest him. They have nothing. Chapman walks out and comes straight after me. And you.’ She drained her drink and stood up. ‘Look, it was nice to meet you, but you’ve heard what you wanted to hear. Time to leave this behind. Sometimes you can’t win.’
‘Thanks for the drink and the five minutes of whatever that movie was. If I see you around, I’ll nod. Otherwise, we don’t talk again.’
‘Listen, Brophy,’ said Marketa, ‘the last time a man disobeyed me he ended up dead. Bye.’ She pulled on her bright yellow raincoat and walked out into the rain.
Pete watched her disappear, a golden streak faintly visible through steamed up windows, and then he went back to the bar and ordered a double Scotch. He sipped it while he tried to process everything he had been told that night.
It kept coming back to Jerzy’s words. ‘Two packs. Score within. Dupek. Skurwysen. You motherfucking arsehole.’ That’s what Jerzy thought of him. And he did not blame him for that. But it was just not right. Jerzy was murdered, and his murderers were still strutting about the place. Maybe the police would catch the man who stabbed Jerzy, but the one who gave the order would go free. It was just not right.
And what if Chapman decided Marketa was involved? God, what if he already had, and he was just biding his time, waiting for the Gruszka murder to blow over? A man with his means could ensure any sort of accident might befall Marketa somewhere down the line. His mind was turning it over and over. What if somebody was following Marketa? What if somebody had seen them together? God, he had thought before she was paranoid. Now he thought she was downright reckless.
If only somebody had access to the files. If it could be proven that Jerzy had the files, it could demonstrate a motive. It would link Karl Chapman to Jerzy. The killer took the laptop, but there was no way Jerzy would keep the files there. Somewhere in the cloud? It was anybody’s guess. But if somebody could find out where Jerzy had put those files… if Pete could find out where Jerzy had put those files… maybe he could keep Marketa safe. Maybe he could even keep himself safe.
He threw back the rest of the whisky. It had to be worth a try. It was too late to prove it to the man who died in his hallway, but maybe he could prove to himself, for once in his life, that he was not just a motherfucking arsehole.