A Taste Of Iron
When you are in the process of breaking and entering a flat and you are surprised by a small Polish man brandishing a cast iron poker, it is important to seize the initiative, if not the poker. Peter Brophy was not quite sure why he thought that to be the case, but in the absence of any other advice it appeared to be the only course of action.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing in here?’ Pete cried. ‘This is Jerzy’s flat. Have you got no respect? How dare you? Get out!’
It worked. Pete’s outburst knocked Tiny Kuba Waskiewicz off balance. ‘Wait a minute…’ Kuba said, confused, but Pete had already launched himself at him, aiming for the poker.
Pete hit his shin on the coffee table, and Kuba brought down the poker, landing a blow on Pete’s right arm. ‘Ow! Fuck! Ow!’ Pete said, involuntarily giving the skirmish a running commentary. He thrust out his left hand and grabbed Kuba’s open parka, swinging him round towards the sofa. Kuba toppled onto the cushions, dragging Pete on top of him. He swung the poker again, desperately, hitting Pete with a glancing blow on the ear. A second swing was stopped by Pete’s hand. Pete closed his fist around the poker. ‘Jesus, stop hitting me,’ Pete said, and he yanked the poker away from Kuba. He held the makeshift weapon over his head, to stop Waskiewicz from grabbing it back. But from Kuba’s position it looked as if the crazy man who insulted Jerzy’s mother at her own son’s funeral was about to get his revenge, and he could do nothing about it. He covered his face with his hands instinctively. ‘Please, don’t!’ Kuba begged.
‘I’m not going to hit you. Jesus,’ said Pete. His arm and ear throbbed. ‘All right? It’s not what it looks like. I’m going to get off you, and then we can just talk for a minute, OK?’
Kuba nodded, and Pete dropped the poker behind the sofa. It clattered on the laminate floor. Kuba shuddered at the noise. Slowly, carefully, Pete climbed off the terrified Pole. He held his hands up. ‘See?’ he said. He was not sure why he felt the need to hold his hands up. It was not as if he thought Kuba had a gun. It just seemed the right thing to do in the increasingly bizarre circumstances.
He stepped backwards, edging away from the sofa as Waskiewicz sat up.
‘OK? Look, why don’t you tell me what you’re doing in here, and then I’ll explain why I’m here, and maybe we can help each other? You want water? I’ll get you some water.’ Kuba nodded.
Pete went into the kitchen and ran the cold tap for a full minute, as Dad had told him. He rinsed a glass upon which was printed a 1970s Neal Adams Batman pose, and filled it. When he had thought about breaking into Jerzy’s flat he had tried to anticipate as many scenarios as possible, and this was definitely not among them.
He walked back into the room. Kuba was standing there on the balls of his feet, ready to pounce, the poker back in his hand. Brilliant, thought Pete.
‘What? You think I’m going to let you get a knife from the kitchen? Why don’t you tell me why you are in my friend’s home, you piece of shit?’ demanded Kuba, bobbing from side to side.
Pete still had the adrenalin flowing through his body from their previous skirmish. He was thinking at twice his normal speed, as he did whenever he was in danger. He felt the cool glass in his hand. Could he use it as a weapon if it came to it? What, Pete? Glass him? Seriously, this is your plan? Smash a glass into the face of a man while you’re burgling the flat of his friend, who, it appears, was murdered by a burglar? It would be, at best, tricky to explain down at Kilburn police station to a sceptical Detective Inspector Holloway.
Wait a minute, Pete reminded himself, you have a glass of water. He threw the water at Kuba’s head. Without thinking, Kuba covered his face, and Pete, using the element of surprise effectively for only the second time in his entire life, flung himself at Kuba, grabbing the poker. The spiked end hooked itself in his palm. Normally this sort of injury would have had Pete running for a bandage, and showing it off in work for weeks afterwards, but these were not normal times. His adrenalin was spiking. He grabbed the middle of the poker and wrenched it out of Waskiewicz’s hand. Kuba cowered again, waiting for the blow. ‘Jesus,’ said Pete. ‘Why do you always think I’m going to kill you? Sit the fuck down, will you?’
Kuba did as he was instructed. ‘Let me get you something to dry off,’ said Pete. He kept the poker with him as he went back to the kitchen. Once bitten… There were no paper kitchen towels. Who doesn’t have kitchen roll? Pete asked himself. He looked at his hand. There was a gash in the palm, like a stigmata, the blood rolling down. He suddenly felt faint. He steadied himself against the worktop, then staggered into the bathroom. There were a box of plasters and a roll of surgical bandage in the cabinet. He kept an eye on Kuba as he rolled the bandage around his hand. His ear hurt, his arm hurt, and now his hand. This was going remarkably badly.
He walked back into the living room. Kuba was sitting on the sofa, water dripping from his hair, still shaking. ‘Look,’ Pete said, ‘Why are you here?’
‘Mrs Gruszka asked me to sell Jerzy’s things. The landlord wants to rent out this flat. We have only two weeks and then the agent will strip this place so bare. It’s not fair to poor Mrs Gruszka. Another fucking insult.’ He stared at Pete.
‘That wasn’t my fault,’ Pete cried out. ‘I don’t speak Polish. I thought he was speaking in English. I thought he’d said “Two packs. Score within”.’
‘Two packs. Score within?’ said Kuba. ‘Why would he say that?’
‘I didn’t know!’
‘That doesn’t make any sense. It’s nonsense.’
‘Yeah, I know that now. Marketa told me. Look, I’m really…’
Waskiewicz bristled. ‘You’ve spoken to that Czech bitch? She ruined the poor man. He would have given her anything and she threw it back at him…’
‘Well, you know, two sides to every story and…’
‘Back in his face. She broke his fucking heart. And where is she now, eh? She should be doing this. Women.’
‘She’s why I’m here,’ Pete said. ‘She thinks Jerzy was murdered on purpose. She thinks she knows who did it.’
Kuba gave Pete a sceptical look.
‘I’m serious. Look, I could tell you, but you might be in danger, and…’
‘Well, don’t fucking tell me,’ said Kuba.
‘Really, I mean…?’
‘Yeah, really. Why the fuck would I want to be in danger? I don’t want to know. Do you think I’m stupid?’
‘That’s why I haven’t been to the police yet, because…’
‘I said I don’t want to know. Are you deaf?’
A moment of mistrustful silence passed between them.
‘Anyway,’ said Pete. ‘I’m trying to find some evidence I can give to the police. I know, I know, you don’t want to know. I won’t tell you anything else about it. But maybe you can help me.’
Kuba adopted his sceptical expression again.
‘OK, well,’ Pete cast his eyes around the room. ‘You’re disposing of Jerzy’s things, yeah? What happened to his laptop? Have you sold it? Have the police taken it?’
Kuba thought for a moment. ‘I have not seen the laptop. I don’t think police have it. They gave Mrs Gruszka a list of things they have. I didn’t see a laptop on there.’
So whoever killed Jerzy had taken the laptop. Another part of Marketa’s story had fallen into place. Pete stood up. He put the poker back in its holder by the fireplace. ‘OK, see this gap here?’ He crouched in front of the space in the DVD case. To the left of the space was Real Steel, to the right, Reservoir Dogs. He knew what should be there. ‘There are no other gaps,’ Pete said. ‘I don’t think Jerzy let people borrow his DVDs, did he? Did the police take these?’
‘No,’ said Kuba. ‘I know what happened to these. I let them in to take them. They said Jerzy said they could have these discs over his dead body, or something. We laughed. No skin off my chin. Look how many there are.’
‘Who took them?’ Pete asked the question, but he knew the answer.
‘You know them. His stupid game friends. You were with them, the fucking vampires,’ said Kuba.
You know that feeling when you are groping for a word. You know the word – you had even used it the day before – but it just will not come, as if you are trying to pick out a piece of stray egg shell from a cracked egg in a bowl. You pick it up, and then the albumen sucks it back off the teaspoon just as it reaches the edge of the bowl.
That was how it felt for Peter Brophy at that moment. There was something there, something in the three goths’ claiming of Jerzy’s Realm Of The Sword DVDs for themselves. But he could not quite grasp it. ‘What did they actually say to you, Kuba? I think it might be important.’
‘I don’t know. They said Jerzy would have wanted them to have the discs. I think I said it would be over his dead body and we all laughed. I let them in and they took them. Do you want any of his films? There are so many.’
‘When was this?’
‘I don’t know, a couple of weeks ago? After the funeral. What does it matter?’
‘I could tell you,’ Pete said, ‘But somebody else would have to kill you.’
For the rest of the morning, Pete helped Kuba pack boxes, as much as the injury to his left hand would allow. Kuba did not ask Pete how he had obtained a key to Jerzy’s flat, and Pete, in exchange, did not tell him. Pete told himself that he was being a decent human being and helping Kuba to ease the troubles of a bereaved mother. But in reality he was trying to stay on the right side of Kuba, who could quite easily inform the authorities of Pete’s breaking and entering. And, more importantly, he was using the opportunity to have a closer look at Jerzy’s personal effects. Such a strange term, Pete thought. Effects. When do belongings become effects? Is it at the moment of death? More transubstantiation.
He should have done this for Dad, he thought. He should not have left it to the others. Too late now. Too late for everything.
In any case, there was nothing among the effects Pete boxed up that day that offered up much of a clue as to the location of Chapman’s files. Certainly there was nothing like the knowledge that the Three Goths – they had adopted the capital letters of proper nouns in Pete’s head – had been in Jerzy’s flat and taken his ingeniously obtained but entirely illegal Realm Of The Sword DVDs, potentially at the direct behest of Jerzy himself. Did they take the files at the same time? Anything was possible, Pete supposed. Would they tell him even if they had? That was unlikely. He would have to gain their trust. Mind you, he thought, he had just won round Kuba, and Kuba had actually found him intruding in Jerzy’s flat, so it was quite possible he was on a roll. But Pete had lived in his own skin for long enough to know that that he had never had a lucky streak, only lucky spatters. Still, Kuba knew where he could find the Three Goths at least. Another lucky spatter.
And so that afternoon Pete crossed the threshold of Arizona & Mars, a comic shop which first appeared in the great comic book wave of the late eighties and early nineties, and, when the wave subsided, somehow stayed in place. Its owner, a woman of indeterminate age, but presumably in her late fifties, and known even to her own mother as Onyx, shrewdly identified geek trends just before they hit the mainstream and subsidised her comic trade by selling fantasy card games and T-shirts with Los Bros Hernandez characters upon them to students who would no more be seen in public reading comic books than they would pornography.
Pete stepped inside. This was not his sort of place, not any more. The teenage Peter would have loved it, the shelves and shelves of monthly comics and graphic novels, the statues and articulated action figures manufactured and priced for people in their thirties to place in cabinets, the white noise of whatever band the pierced and blotting paper-skinned shop assistant was into that week tearing through the store, at odds with the clean-cut long-underwear brigade on the comic book covers. But adult Pete felt adrift, awkward, entirely out of place. A square. Amazing, he thought, I am such a square I use the term ‘square’. He passed by the comic shelves and picked up an issue at random, before taking it to the counter.
‘Spider-Man,’ said the tattooed man behind the counter. He was so inked Pete could not tell what colour his actual skin was. He was a human comic book.
‘No, it’s, um, it’s The Flash,’ said Pete, pointing at the cover.
‘No, mun, I said it’s a fiver, mun,’ said the shop assistant.
‘Excuse Stephen,’ drawled a voice from the corner. ‘He’s a Geordie. Can’t get the staff, darling.’ Pete turned. Sitting in a leather armchair was Onyx, her skin white as asses’ milk, her hair dyed jet black, her dress a sprayed-on black. Had Morticia Addams gone to a Sisters of Mercy gig she would not have pulled off the goth look as successfully as Onyx.
Pete handed over a ten-pound note and waited for his change. ‘Um,’ he said to Stephen. ‘I’m looking for a man. Well, a few men.’
‘We’re not that sort of establishment, dear,’ said Onyx. ‘Have you tried Soho?’
‘No! I don’t mean like that. I’m looking for three go… three guys. I was told they might be in here. I can’t remember all their names. Two of them are called Tom? Or Thomas?’
‘Oh, yes?’ said Onyx.
‘It’s, erm…’ Why had he not thought of a good reason? They were bound to ask. ‘I was a friend of their friend who died recently, and, erm, I have something of his that he wanted them to have.’
‘Lovely Jerzy?’ said Onyx from her chair. She pronounced it ‘Jersey’. Pete nodded. ‘Oh! I loved that man. Such a tragedy. Gorgeous little bum. Has Lambert been in, Stephen?’
The shop assistant ducked behind the counter and pulled out a box of comics. He rifled through them. ‘No, mun,’ Stephen said. ‘They’ve not been in, mun.’
‘Are they likely to be in today?’ Pete asked. ‘Can I wait for them?’
‘I’m not their keeper, darling,’ said Onyx. ‘I just sell them comics. You’re welcome to wait, of course, but I can’t make any promises.’
Pete looked around the shop. The only other customer was a man in his 40s with glasses held together with a sticking plaster, and a satchel with its strap crossing his paunch. He was looking down the red and gold bodice of a Wonder Woman maquette.
‘Can I just leave my number?’ Pete said.
That evening Pete paced around his flat, a mug of tea warming his hand. Why did he not just stay in the shop? Now he had to count on Onyx and Stephen the Walking Comic Book to pass on the message. And even if they did that, would the Three Goths contact him? You can’t count on other people, they don’t give a shit. Be positive, he told himself. Concentrate on what you have actually done today. What had he done? He had broken into a flat, bruised his head and arm, and gashed his palm. And then he had done a lot of manual work, which only reminded him what an idiot he had been when his father had died. And all for what? The slimmest, the tiniest, the most insubstantial of leads. It was pathetic. He was pathetic. He should just…
His phone started to vibrate in his pocket. It was a number he did not recognise. He accepted the call and held the phone to his ear, refusing to speak first. There was silence. Just the sound of somebody breathing. Pete held his own breath. Seconds crawled by.
And then, just as Pete was about to give in, there was a hesitant ‘Hello?’
‘I got your number from Arizona & Mars. They said you’ve got something from Jerzy…?’