The Untimely Death of Jerzy Gruszka: Chapter 21

Blood On The Pavement

Peter Brophy awoke for the second day running anxious from a disappearing dream. He opened his eyes. His head was against a window, its coolness on his cheek, and dried saliva was caked on the corner of his mouth. His knees were pressed up against the seat in front. He felt as if he had spent the night in a tin, which, in a sense, he had. When he realised he was on a coach, he turned quickly to check if Marketa was still there. She was sitting next to him, her yellow raincoat spread over her legs.

‘Sorry,’ said Pete. ‘I think I must have fallen asleep.’

‘Really?’ said Marketa, in a monotone. It was the very opposite of Australian intonation.

‘Sorry,’ repeated Pete. ‘Did I snore?’

Marketa snorted in the affirmative as the coach pulled into the bus station. They disembarked, dishevelled, and Pete crossed the strap of his laptop bag over his chest like a train spotter. There was a part of him which wanted to ditch the disc which Jerzy had made, but, if he ever found a police officer he trusted, he knew that he would need it as evidence.

They walked out onto the hill of London Road. It had been 15 years since Pete had last been in Liverpool, but London Road had changed little, still in decline but not yet dead, as if its body had been frozen until a cure was found. The Odeon, where he had seen Jurassic Park with Dad – just Dad and none of the others – had gone, and the road was filled with takeaways, each of which boasted the cuisines of far too many countries to engender customer confidence in their expertise or authenticity, pawn shops, and newsagents with blue signs. This truly was a London road. He felt at home, and at home.

‘Is there anywhere in this dump we can eat?’ Marketa asked.

‘There’s a McDonald’s, I think,’ said Pete. ‘There used to be. McDonald’s don’t close down, do they?’ They turned the corner into Lime Street, and the sweep of William Brown Street, with its neo-classical museums and galleries, and the heft of St George’s Hall, lit up until sunrise, struck them both. They wandered along Lime Street, passing a homeless man, shivering under cardboard on the steps of the Liverpool Empire theatre. Pete barely recognised Lime Street Station. When he had left, so long ago now, it was grimy, utilitarian, smelling of diesel and decline, the end of the line, literally and figuratively. Now it looked glorious and golden, even in the dankest depths of a pre-sunrise autumn morning. The 1960s parade of shops and tower block had been stripped away, like barnacles, revealing Victorian splendour, and not even the overflowing bins and blackened chewing gum detracted from the new steps leading up to the booking hall.

He led Marketa along Great Charlotte Street, only half a step ahead of her, past bars which felt like last resorts, refuges for those who had given up. A street cleansing float was washing away the urine and blood and vomit of the night before – a quiet night, but there were no quiet nights on Great Charlotte Street. They reached the McDonald’s on the corner, just where Pete remembered it. There was a scattering of people inside, more than Pete had expected at 6.37am, a mixture of those requiring an early breakfast and those who wished to partake of a very late supper. The former had luggage, the latter so much baggage. Marketa slid into a clean table next to a couple of Japanese students, while Pete went to order the food.

So, he thought, here he was. He had kept them alive for a night. Whoop-de-doo! What next, Sherlock? They would run out of money quickly, maybe in five days, six tops. Yes, they could live for a few months on the money in his bank account, but he could not withdraw it, not without alerting whoever wanted to know where he was. ‘Sir?’ said Vijay, the assistant, modestly displaying his three gold stars on his McDonald’s name badge. He had filled Pete’s tray. Without thinking, Pete took his cash card from his wallet, and pushed it into the chip and PIN machine. Shit! Think, you idiot! He withdrew it quickly. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘can I pay cash?’ Vijay called over the shift manager to cancel the purchase, while the people waiting behind Pete tutted. Good job, Pete thought, you have done really well in keeping a low profile.

Eventually he paid, and he took the tray over to Marketa, who pounced upon her McMuffin like a lion upon a gazelle. ‘Where are we going to go?’ she asked, eventually, as the colour came back into her cheeks. ‘We’re going to run out of money soon.’

‘I don’t know,’ Pete said. ‘We can’t stay with my family.’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, for one, whoever’s looking for us will probably have my family under surveillance, and two, they hate me.’

‘Why do they hate you?’

‘It’s a really long story.’

‘Well,’ said Marketa, laying down her orange juice bottle, ‘we have lots of time.’

‘Yeah, ask me again when we have less time,’ said Pete.

***

Felipe Herrero pushed open his front door with a weary sigh, and he could not be sure if the sound had emanated from himself or the door. It had been 27 hours since he had last slept and he was exhausted. At 2am he had been in Docklands, disposing of the adapted Glock 17 where the River Lee meets the Thames. He had wiped it clean with disinfectant, then packed it in a carrier bag with some pebbles, and dropped it in. Then he had driven back across the river to a club with decent whisky he knew in Southwark so he could chill. He could never sleep after a job. It was not guilt, more excitement. He was keyed up. Even now it still felt like the thrill of breaking a taboo. No, that was not true, there was a little guilt that night. He would have preferred not to have had to do the mother, but that little vampire pussy would not stay quiet. He had warned him. ‘Wake your mother and I’ll do her next,’ he said, as he pressed the silencer against the goth’s temple. ‘Mummy!’ he had cried out, just before his pathetic story ended. What a little girl. Felipe knew that when his own end came, he would face it with dignity, not pissing his pants and crying for mama. She had called upstairs as Felipe put a second bullet into her son’s chest, so what else could he do? He did not like the idea of taking out an innocent. Everybody with whom he dealt up to now had been a player. They knew the game and the risks. Cross a shogun and expect a samurai to be sent to execute you, that was how it worked.

But Lambert’s mother? She was not involved in anything. If that mewling little shit had kept quiet she would still be alive. Was she innocent, though? No. If she had brought up her boy properly, to treat the likes of Karl Chapman respectfully, then he would never have had to visit them. In the end she had brought this on herself.

He wondered briefly again what Lambert had on his computer, and what he had done to anger Chapman. He assumed it was Chapman behind this, not that he had ever spoken to Chapman about it. He had only met the man once. He had dealt with Moran as usual. It was Moran who sorted out the payments. It was Moran who had ordered the initial hit on that Pole. It was Moran whom he had called at 1am to explain that the two targets in Cricklewood had gone to ground and to assure him that this was just a setback. Moran was insulting, disrespectful. Felipe really did despise the middle man. Felipe had a job, a trade of sorts, but Moran was the sort of man who held other men’s coats. He genuinely hoped one day that he would be the one to receive a call from another Chapman lickspittle to take out Moran. He might even do it for free.

He switched on his computer and set the algorithm running. He did not have to look for Brophy and the Jelinkova woman, not when he had an entire population to do the work for him. It was just a matter of time. Then, yawning and full of scotch, he traipsed up the stairs to his bedroom, hoping to be asleep before the hangover kicked in.

***

‘It’s not like him,’ Alice Brown typed. She had left four messages. Pete’s phone went straight to voicemail. ‘He never turns his phone off.’

She waited as the little dots on her screen rippled.

‘Maybe it’s been stolen,’ replied Si.

‘Seriously?’ Alice said. ‘U think if his phone was stolen he wouldn’t have been in touch? Its Pete were talking about here.’

She waited again.

‘He’s a grown up. It’s been less than a day. You need to chill out a bit. He’s probably just lost his charger or something. I don’t know why you’re so worried.’

But Alice knew exactly why she was so worried.

***

‘Have we got less time now?’ Marketa asked Pete, as their bus passed the Women’s Hospital. Pete had found them a hotel for the next five days, but they could not check in until 2pm, and he felt uncomfortable – exposed – being out in the city centre in daylight hours. So he had decided to take Marketa back to his old neighbourhood. Yes, there was a chance somebody would recognise him, he supposed, but he knew the area so well. He knew its streets and entries and secret paths. If anybody came after them, he knew how to lose them there and where to hide until the danger moved on.

‘What?’ said Pete. He was staring past Marketa through the bus window. He did not recognise Upper Parliament Street at all. He felt the culture shock of a time traveller. The topography of the area was the same but the buildings were something very different. He was almost pathetically grateful when he saw a second-hand furniture dealer, based in a deconsecrated chapel, which he remembered, and which could give him his bearings.

‘Why does your family hate you? Apart from the obvious reasons, I mean.’ Marketa pressed him.

‘Families are complicated,’ said Pete.

‘No, they’re not,’ said Marketa. ‘You have parents and brothers and sisters and you’re all on the same side. How is that complicated?’

‘OK,’ said Pete, ‘I’m the Czech Republic, and our Amanda is Slovakia.’

‘Ah,’ said Marketa, as the bus passed Toxteth Park Cemetery, where Pete’s parents lay together. At least, he assumed so. He tried to block out the graves, the thoughts, the memories, Shaun… What was he thinking? Why did he come back here? He had run away to London to escape all this, to be better than he was, to appear to all the world a decent human being. Operation Clean Slate. But it was like his teenage bedroom. The mess he had left behind had not been tidied up. It just lay there, festering in the darkness. When this was over, maybe he could get out a dustpan and brush…

Marketa was reading him. She had already spun stories in her head for the other passengers on the bus, the woman in the hijab with the three pre-school age children, the man who boarded near Great Charlotte Street with the stained trousers and yellowing grey hair, the respectable elderly lady jabbing at the keys of her phone, which she was holding close to her face. And in Pete’s face she read what? Regret? Loss?

Pete pressed the bell, and they alighted at the Post Office opposite Ullet Road. ‘It’s all changed,’ he mumbled.

‘Brophy,’ said Marketa, ‘Why have you brought me here?’

‘This is where I was brought up, where I lived when I was a kid,’ said Pete. ‘One of these roads here. I just wanted to see it again. To make… I don’t know.’

‘Are you taking me to meet your parents, Brophy? Because I’m not sure I’m ready to…’

‘No. They’re dead.’

‘Oh,’ said Marketa, then softly, ‘You have brothers, though? Sisters?’

‘Yeah. Our Amanda’s still in Liverpool. I think. I don’t know where our Gerry and Becky are. I think Becky’s in the north east, somewhere…’

‘How can you not know where your family is?’

‘Like I said, it’s complicated.’

‘Everything’s complicated with you.’ Marketa smiled, her chipped tooth showing. She scraped her hair back into a pony tail. ‘Jesus, I need a shower. Look, Brophy, go see your sister.’

‘I don’t want to.’

‘No? You don’t think Karl’s little helper will find her? You need to warn her to be careful, to watch out.’

‘Shit,’ said Pete. ‘I hadn’t thought of that… I don’t know where she lives.’

‘So you go to your old house. You see if they left an address. Come on, Brophy, this is easy for you.’

He thought for a moment. ‘OK, come on,’ he said, and he walked with Marketa along Smithdown Road, past off-licences and cafes and student lettings offices, to the corner of Brotherswater Road. His heart was thumping. How utterly strange to be home, to be taking the path he had taken every day, walking in the canyon between the red brick terraced houses, with their narrow strips of mock Tudor cladding running under the eaves. Mrs Kennet was walking down the other side of the road in the opposite direction, looking no older than when he had left, that is to say as elderly as she had always appeared. She was like Dorian Gray, if the painting had been created at the age of 70. She was dragging a tartan shopping trolley behind her, the wheels scraping the pavement. Pete looked down, but there was no way she would have recognised him. He had changed as much as she had not.

The road had a different character, though. When he left Brotherswater Road, after the funeral, it was a road of families. And now it was a street of students. To-let signs hung everywhere, offering broadband and rooms for £80 a week, in houses owned by people who already had houses of their own, and who had greedily swiped the next generation’s future in order to make their own more comfortable.

They crossed Garmoyle Road and carried on down Brotherswater. They were getting closer to Pete’s childhood home, and he was trying block out the memories. The wide alley – the entry – on the corner, where Pete had practised catching a ball day after day, was now gated. ‘Where is it?’ Marketa asked.

‘This is it,’ said Pete, his voice cracking. He stopped next to a white Transit and pointed to a house on the other side of the road. He remembered it all – the carved keystone in the arch over the front door, the curls of the railing running above the low wall, bent when Gerry rode his bike into it. The blue front door had gone, probably rotted away, replaced by a white PVC-U effort which…

Oh, God, the door was opening. Pete pulled Marketa back, and they hid behind the van, watching through the windscreen. An empty pushchair appeared through the threshold, followed by a woman wrestling with a truculent toddler. ‘No, mummy! Out, mummy!’ the little boy cried over and over, his limbs flailing. ‘No, mummy! Walk!’ Oh, God, it was her. She was blonde now, older, a little wider, but it was definitely her. Pete watched as, grimly determined, the woman put the boy in the pushchair, her palm pressing him down as she struggled to engage the straps with her other hand.

‘Go and ask her!’ Marketa hissed.

‘Just wait,’ Pete whispered, as the mother pulled down the hood on the pushchair and began to march towards Smithdown Road. ‘It’s not the right time.’

‘Go after her! She might know where your sister is,’ Marketa demanded.

‘She is my sister! That’s Amanda. That little boy is my nephew. Probably. I’ll come back later.’ He looked at Marketa, who returned his look sceptically. ‘On my own.’

Marketa sniffed and continued walking. ‘I wasn’t prepared, OK? Jesus,’ said Pete. ‘When did you start giving a shit?’

‘I don’t,’ said Marketa. ‘Let’s just keep moving. It’s cold.’

They walked on, through the wind blasted Mystery park, until they found Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Parish Church, imposing and cold, despite the warmth of its red sandstone. The heavy wooden door was ajar, and there was a part of Pete that ached to go inside, to smell the incense and the polish, and to remember what it felt like before he was broken. He stopped for a moment to take it in, and then checked his watch. It was time. They could head back to the city centre and check into the hotel and hide there and that would not be awkward at all. Oh, no.

***

The phone rang for the fourth time. The volume was switched off – jaunty ringtones were inimical to Felipe Herrero’s trade – but the buzzing vibration had moved the phone along the bedside cabinet a centimetre every time, and in the end it was not the buzzing which woke up Felipe, but the thud of his phone hitting the floor. He leant out of the bed and pulled the phone close to his face, trying to focus. As his vision became clearer, he read that he had four missed calls, all from the coat holder. He sighed and dialled back.

‘Where have you been?’ barked Moran.

‘Sleeping. What’s happened?’ Felipe spoke in even tones. Calmness was very important to him.

‘You tell me. My… associate is very concerned about the loose ends you’ve left. It’s making you look bad, and, worse, it’s making me look bad.’

‘I see,’ said Felipe. We wouldn’t want that, would we? ‘You need to have faith in me to deal with things, just as I have before. Brophy is an amateur. It’s just a matter of time. He’ll surface soon and I’ll deal with him. You worry too much.’

‘And maybe you don’t worry enough,’ said Moran, ending the call.

Felipe sighed again, and creaked out of bed, hungover and still tired. He gripped the banister and heavily descended the staircase. He hit the space bar on the computer in his study, and the screen flashed back into life. The algorithm was still running, but there was no news. Good, he thought, and he stumbled back to bed.

***

Pete slipped the key card into the slot and waited for the green light. Then he pulled the key card out of the slot, turned it the right way, and pushed it back in. The tiny green LED lit up, and Pete opened the door. The hotel room itself was, well, not exactly cramped but certainly a successful exercise in the efficient use of space. But it was clean and dry and there were white fluffy towels on the bed. The big queen-size bed.

‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ said Pete. ‘I said I wanted twin beds. You heard me, didn’t you? I said “twin”, didn’t I? Twice.’

‘Relax, Brophy. We’re adults. Don’t worry, I’m not going to touch you.’ Marketa grabbed one of the towels and disappeared into the bathroom. Pete searched for the tea and coffee making facilities, and then he collapsed onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. He could hear the hiss of water from the shower through the door and tried not to imagine Marketa washing herself. Everything was swirling around his head: Liverpool, the surprised expression on Mrs Lambert’s face, the fact he was on the run from a hitman, the fact that a naked woman was five feet away from him, on the other side of a thin wall, and his nephew. He was somebody’s uncle. That was a new responsibility, surely. He would have a sleep and then go back to see Amanda. Marketa was right, she needed to know, to be careful.

The bathroom door opened and Marketa stepped out, her hair wrapped in a towel, her body wrapped in nothing. She picked up another towel and began to dry herself. Pete looked away. He had seen Marketa naked before, in the photographs Jerzy had kept hidden in his book, he had imagined her too many times, but this was too much. ‘Jesus, Brophy, we’re going to be here for days,’ she said, over the sound of the extractor fan, ‘I’m not hiding behind a towel like I’m on a beach or some shit. Get used to it. Now buy toothbrushes, get yourself cleaned up, and go see your sister.’

***

Alice walked away from Pete’s house on Croft Road. She had buzzed him half a dozen times, she had contacted everybody she and Pete had in common, and nobody had heard from him.

She scrolled through her phone and found a picture of Pete. Was she overreacting, she wondered? Maybe, but she knew what Karl Chapman was capable of. Everybody knew what Karl Chapman was capable of. It couldn’t do any harm. And so she shared the picture to Twitter, with the tweet, ‘Worried about my friend Pete Brophy, of Cricklewood. If anybody has seen him, please let me know. Please retweet.’

***

Felipe Herrero was flossing his teeth when he heard a ping. He rushed down the stairs to his study, and hit the space bar.

The algorithm had done its business, scraping social media for any mention of Brophy or Jelinkova. And there it was, a single tweet from @allyleavesRbrown, with a picture of Brophy, already retweeted 27 times. It had started. As he had told the coat holder, it was just a matter of time.

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