The Untimely Death of Jerzy Gruszka: Chapter 20

Exsanguination

Peter Brophy awoke feeling guilty, which was not a new experience. For a change, on this occasion, it was not because of his dreams of Jerzy, dreams in which he dropped a succession of increasingly heavy objects on the dying man in his hallway. No, this time it was because he had landed Dominic the Goth right in it with the police. ‘No harm done,’ he had promised Dominic. That was a laugh. Surely they could not pin a charge of interfering with a crime scene on him? He had been there after the police had finished their investigations. Kuba would be able to clear this up. It was fine.

On the other hand, could there be a case for a charge of handling stolen goods? Jerzy had illegally downloaded the episodes of Realm Of The Sword, and piracy was theft, according to the beginning of every DVD and VHS Pete had watched in the 90s. Dominic had taken those discs knowing that they contained illegal material. It seemed terribly petty, but so did DS Patterson.

Arresting Dominic was just the sort of thing Patterson would do. Pete had showed him up, turning up evidence the police officer would never have found – could never have found. He could imagine the begrudging way he would have presented the disc to Detective Inspector Holloway. He would arrest Dominic just to show everybody who was still in charge. Alice was right. Give it a couple of days and then contact Holloway, or maybe that young DC, Khan, was it? She seemed quite sharp.

Before that, it only seemed fair that he warn Dominic the Goth that he might be receiving a knock on the door from Plod in the near future. He stared at his phone, then at Homes Under The Hammer on his television screen. After Homes Under The Hammer, Pete thought. He would call him then. Oh, no, hang on, Bargain Hunt would be on then. The torpor of unemployment had already pinioned him. He had lost both of the impetuses of his life – his job and his mission – within days, and he was in danger of drifting irretrievably. No, he would call him after Bargain Hunt. Definitely. A cup of tea first, though.

In the event, it was after lunch, well after lunch, that Pete got around to calling Dominic. He had finally got washed and dressed. He would call Dominic and then get on with the job of finding a job. He scrolled through his contacts on his phone, found Dominic (under Dominic Goth), and waited to be connected. It rang eight times and then Dominic’s voice came on the line.

‘Hi, this is Dom Lambert. I hate voicemails, so I’m not going to listen to whatever you’re about to say. If you really want to contact me, text me, or email me.’

Fine, thought Pete. He also hated leaving voicemails, the pressure of the unprepared speech, the inability to improvise, to leave a gap, to substitute a word with ‘thingy’. He hung up, and texted Dominic.

Hi, Dom. I had to hand in the disc
at the police station, and I’m really
sorry, but they asked about you. Give
me a call if you want to know any
more. Sorry again, Pete Brophy. X
3.39pm

You idiot, thought Pete, the instant after he sent it, why did you put a kiss on the end of your text? What were you thinking?

Three minutes later, Pete’s phone rang. He was prepared to apologise, but it was Alice, with news of a possible job at a business-to-business publisher in Bushey. Good old Alice. Bushey, though? Jesus. Was there nothing in Slough or Hemel Hempstead? But half an hour later he had called the publisher and somehow managed to secure himself an interview for the following morning.

It was halfway through Countdown when he decided he was being a coward. He should not have hidden behind a text. He should have called Dom again, and so he did. Again the phone rang until the goth’s weary voicemail message played.

A third attempt an hour later had the same result, and Pete was beginning to feel terribly guilty. Why had he not warned Dom the previous day? He had left it for more than 24 hours. He might not have been able to prevent an arrest, but at least Dom might have been able to contact a solicitor in advance.

An hour later and his conscience was screaming in his ear. What if CID had already discovered the disc he gave Patterson was a copy? Dom had been arrested and it was all his fault. He had to make amends. He should go to Dom’s house and find out what was going on and, if necessary, explain to his mother. It was all a practical joke that had gone too far and Dom had nothing to do with it. Then he would go to Detective Inspector Holloway and fix it. He would hand over the real disc and face the consequences.

His mind made up, Pete stuffed his laptop and the disc in his bag, pulled on a coat, and left his flat.

***

By the time he arrived at the Lambert residence in Willesden the road was thick with people coming home from work, the sodium glow of the lampposts guiding them to their front doors. The first premature fireworks of the year were exploding overhead, showering green and gold sparks, their reports echoing off the roofs and walls of the terraces. The Lamberts’ home, however, was in darkness. Pete stood under the porch and bent over, peering through the letterbox. He could see nothing in the hallway, but his foot accidentally knocked over a milk bottle, which rolled off the step and smashed, spilling milk over the short path to the pavement. He was too late. They must have been arrested, Mrs Lambert too. Call him again, Pete thought. Try again. He scrolled on his phone to ‘Dominic Goth’ and connected. As the ringing tone purred in his left ear, Pete could hear the faint sound of the riff from Boys Don’t Cry by The Cure deep inside the house. The music stopped as Dominic’s dismal voicemail greeting kicked in.

Pete walked over to the living room window, his soles crunching on first the broken glass and then the gravel scattered in the front garden through which tiny defiant weeds were pushing. He pressed his face up against the cold window and stared into the living room. The curtains were open, but the room was in darkness and the light from the lamppost opposite had faded by the time it reached the lounge so that Pete could see only as far as a couple of feet inside.

Then a car drove past, and its headlamps swept the room, like a searchlight, briefly picking out the form of Mrs Lambert snoozing in an armchair facing the television. Pete jumped and pulled back, hoping she had not seen him. He was breathing hard. He waited a moment, then looked again, this time more tentatively. He switched on the torch app on his phone and flashed it through the window, ready to race away. Mrs Lambert did not react, and it was with a crushing sense of inevitability that he looked again. The light from his phone lit up the room, reflecting from the mirror above the mantelpiece, and the photographs of Dominic, from birth to graduation, and Pete gazed at Mrs Lambert’s glassy surprised eyes. For a second, Pete actually thought that, for some reason, Mrs Lambert was wearing a bindi on her forehead, but, before his brain could process the information, he saw the Rorschach blot on the wall behind her head and he knew. His chest became tight and he began to hyperventilate. For the first time since Sara left he was having a panic attack. He had coped with everything that had happened to him over the past couple of months – the discovery of Jerzy, the break-in, the redundancy. Maybe this was the last straw, or maybe it was just too damned big. Either way, he did not really care why it was happening. He just slumped down the wall, trying to breathe slowly and deeply. Why was this happening to him, he wondered, forgetting for the moment that this was chiefly happening to Mrs Lambert and her son.

What should he do? That was the question he asked when his breathing approached an almost regular pattern. Kettle on, then wash the cup. Shut up, Dad, you have nothing to contribute here, he thought. Nothing. Call an ambulance? No, she was dead, obviously, obviously dead. Police! Call the police!

He fumbled with his phone, trying to switch off the torch app, but it blasted him in the eye. And as his vision cleared, so did his mind. He could not call the police. This was his fault. Everything was his fault. He did not believe in coincidence. Within 24 hours of his handing over Jerzy’s files and Dominic’s name to Detective Sergeant Patterson Dominic’s mother, and probably Dominic, were lying dead. Of course Chapman had a copper in his pocket. Of course he did. Was it Patterson? He did not seem clever enough. Khan? Holloway? It could be any of them, or none of them. It could be somebody else in CID. He could not trust any of them.

How soon would it be before forensics realised the disc he had given Patterson was a copy? A day, two days? This was all assuming Patterson had done anything at all with the disc apart from handing it back to Karl Chapman. Pete needed to hide somewhere, anywhere, just to work out what to do next. Clothes! He needed clothes. And money! How much could he withdraw in one go? £500? How long would that last? His brain was racing through scenarios.

The muffled guitar riff from Boys Don’t Cry played again through the front door. Somebody else was trying to call Dominic. Good, he thought, they can find the Lamberts. He had his own problems. He could feel guilty about this later, assuming he lived long enough. He had to go home, pack, and find somewhere to hide. He started to walk away from the house and up towards the High Road. It would be so easy to pin all three murders on Pete, he told himself. He would be on CCTV footage all the way from his home to the Lamberts. The remaining Two Goths would happily tell the police about the funeral weirdo who wanted Jerzy’s discs. Christ, his text would have been one of the last on Dom’s phone. He could build the case himself.

He stopped at Sainsbury’s and withdrew £500 from the cashpoint. Maybe he could take out another £500 after midnight. Was that how it worked? He had no idea. Then he jumped the 460 bus back to Cricklewood. The smell of fried chicken from a box being fought over by teenage boys on the back seat filled his nostrils and made him nauseous. Was it the chicken, or was it the absolute fear making him feel sick? It hardly mattered. He burped and tasted the bile in the back of his throat.

He ran from the bus stop along Cricklewood Broadway and down towards Croft Road. He just needed to grab a bag of clothes, no more than five minutes. And then what? Where would he go? He stopped outside the house. Jerzy’s flat was in darkness, but light blazed from Donna’s window. He could see her in there, talking to her flatmate, he supposed, he hoped, all luscious and laughing and alive.

And then he looked up at his own window, up on the first floor, and the blood drained from his face. It was dark, as he had left it, but there was a light up there, sweeping around. A torch? Somebody was in his living room.

He hugged the wall so he could not be seen by the intruder, and he edged along, past Jerzy’s flat. He counted to three and then ran, through the gate, and out onto Croft Road, with one word in his head. Marketa.

***

It was just before 10pm when he arrived at Frith Street. He had been to see Tiny Kuba to find out where Marketa lived, but the Pole had no idea of the address of the ‘Czech crazy bitch’. If Pete had been thinking clearly, he would have realised straight away that Marketa would have been working.

He hid behind a van and watched Omar the bouncer, guarding the door of Carny like Cerberus himself. It was a vista he had observed so many times from the window of the Thai restaurant opposite, the light behind Omar, casting a shadow of the doorman into the street – a shadow which somehow underestimated his sheer bulk – and the fluttering tarpaulin-covered scaffolding coating the flats next door in a second skin. He did not have Marketa’s phone number – she had been insistent, bordering on quite rude, when he had asked – so he had no other way of reaching her. Could he overpower Omar if he had the element of surprise? No, he thought, this was not like Andrew Rooney on the bus. He might get in one blow, but Omar would snap him like a breadstick. He would have to be more creative. He would have to use his surroundings. A plan formed…

Ten minutes later, Pete marched up to Omar, his hand behind his back. ‘Oi, gobshite,’ said Pete, ‘I need to see Marketa. Let me in or I’ll twat you.’ He was goading the lion. In some respects it was just like Andrew Rooney on the bus.

‘Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?’ inquired Omar, taking a threatening step away from the door and towards Pete. Pete edged back towards the scaffolding.

‘What, are you as stupid as you’re ugly?’ said Pete. ‘I’m talking to you, you fucking idiot.’

The customer care training Omar had received as part of the Westminster Council licensing regulations deserted him, and he lunged for Pete, grabbing him by the throat.

It could barely have worked out better for Pete. Four minutes earlier, a sex shop assistant had asked Pete if he would like his purchase placed in a brown paper bag, and Pete had declined. On the way back to Frith Street, he had torn the item out of its plastic, card-backed wrapping, and prepared it. And when Omar grabbed him by the throat, Pete snapped one of the pink and fluffy, but heavy-duty, handcuffs around the bouncer’s wrist. The other cuff he snapped around one of the scaffolding poles. In shock, Omar released his grip, and Pete scrambled out of his reach.

‘Look, I’m sorry, mate,’ panted Pete, feeling his throat. ‘I really have to speak to Marketa. It’s really important. No, don’t pull on the pole, the whole scaffolding will come down on top of you.’

‘I’ll fucking kill you,’ promised Omar convincingly. Join the queue, thought Pete, as he rushed inside Carny, skittering to a halt outside the bunco booth cloakroom check-in. Marketa was hanging up a couple of coats. ‘Marketa!’ he shout-whispered.

‘Jesus, Brophy, what do you want? Haven’t we been through this already?’

‘You’ve got to come with me. Quickly.’

‘I’m working, you moron. How did you get past…?’

‘Dominic’s dead.’

‘Who the fuck is Dominic?’ asked Marketa.

‘Goth Dominic! Dungeons & Dragons Dominic!’

The news took a moment to register, as Marketa made the connections in her head. ‘Oh, that’s shitty! His poor mother!’

‘Yeah, well, that’s not going to be a problem…’

‘What?!’ With this, Marketa finally opened the door and Pete entered the bunco booth. Over the next three minutes he told her everything he had done in the past fortnight and everything that had happened, and when he had finished she slapped his face.

‘You went to the police? Have you got any idea what you’ve done?’

‘Why do people keep hitting me? Because I had the evidence. Jesus, yes, I know what I’ve done now. Why do you think I’m here? We need to get out of here.’

‘What’s this “we”? I’m going back to my place to pack and getting on the first plane to Prague. You can do whatever the fuck you want.’

‘Seriously?’ said Pete. ‘You really think it’s safe to go back to your place? I have no idea what’s in those files, but Chapman’s killed three people and he’s got fingers inside the police. You really think they won’t be watching the airports? I guarantee your passport’s on a list.’

Marketa thought for a moment. ‘Shit! I need to warn Niamh!’ She pulled out her phone. ‘Answer your fucking phone. Answer… Niamh! Shut up and listen. You’ve got to get out. Go back to Lurgan. Stay there till I call you… I don’t know, days? Karl’s coming to kill me… No, I’m not fucking joking. Get out! Now! And don’t call me back.’

‘Oh, my God,’ said Marketa. ‘I don’t have anywhere to go.’

‘I’ve got an idea,’ said Pete. He had formulated it while Marketa was on the phone, scrolling through his own, and burning up battery power. It was a fluffy pink handcuff of an idea, but he could not see any other way. ‘You’re going to come with me. You’re going to draw out as much money as you can, and then you’re going to come with me. I’ve got a safe place.’

Marketa weighed it up. Brophy was an idiot, but what other choice did she have? ‘OK.’ She grabbed her yellow raincoat and wrapped it around herself, and the fugitive pair left Carny. ‘I’ll fucking kill you,’ shouted Omar. He was surrounded by drunken students.

‘What did you do to Omar?’ asked Marketa, incredulous. ‘Oh, shit, yeah,’ said Pete. ‘Get ready to run.’ He took the handcuffs key out of his pocket. ‘Sorry,’ he yelled, from a safe distance, and he flung the keys. ‘Run!’ he begged Marketa, and they tore away, past the restaurants and bars of Soho, until they reached Leicester Square tube station, their lungs burning.

Marketa drew out £400 from the cash machine, and they jumped on the tube. Forty minutes later, they were sitting silently, fearfully, in Victoria Coach Station, as 16 different conversations in 13 different languages took place around them. They jumped whenever somebody new appeared. They would not feel safe until they were on the coach.

For Pete Brophy had realised that when the world is crashing in, the best place for you to go is home. His only hope was that home was still there.

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