A Bit of Fun
That's how it started out anyway; just a bit of fun, but that's the way most of Rob's schemes started out. He had a way of persuading me to be a part of it all, even though with the benefit of hard won experience I could predict with weary accuracy the inevitable outcome. At best I would be grounded for a week, as I had been when Mr Thompson's wheelie bin had finally been discovered on the waste ground beyond the derelict warehouses, (how it had been identified as Mr Thompson's wheelie bin had always impressed and eluded me, as when we had left it, the fireworks we had crammed into it were busy reducing it to a puddle of molten plastic) and at worst I could receive another visit from a representative of the town's constabulary who had some pretty stern questions regarding a car full of 15 year olds seen cruising around the town in the small hours of the morning, one of which who bore an uncanny resemblance to yours truly. I had never been so scared and annoyed that my hereditary big nose and hair so blonde that many thought of it as white could be so recognisable. Thankfully, in my short years I had mastered the art of sneaking out and sneaking back home again without being detected. Coupled to that the fact that my Dad was no fan of the police and had backed up my story that I had definitely been home all night and without proof such as fingerprints (I was experienced enough to use latex gloves) then they better stop wasting our time before he thought about suing for defamation of character. Of course, once they had been sent on their way, I was unable to sit down for the best part of a week.
Still, for an underprivileged lad with little or no prospects living in the rough part of town, these distractions were a lifeline and Rob was the master. We would gather in a small group usually commandeering the swings across the road from the line of shops where we would wait for a likely target who might be persuaded to buy our cigarettes or even vodka, sometimes as many as 8 of us, and wait for Rob to take away the boredom. It was always the same. He would start off with "You know what we should do," then after outlying his plan he would finish with "It would just be a bit of fun."
This day was no different. August had yielded up an uncharacteristically hot summer and this was at least the 10th day of consecutive heat. It showed in the scrubs of grass and cracked mud dotted around the estate in an effort to bring a bit of green to the slums. People had been complaining it was too hot after the first 2 days but these were the same people who complained when it rained and when it got cold in winter. We were roughly half way through the summer holidays, although we were so rarely at school these days even the teachers had given up calling our parents to try to catch us out. My form teacher had taken to screwing up my forged sick notes and tossing them unread into the bin right in front of me, but if that was supposed to make me pull my socks up, it wasn't working.
I had surfaced early that morning, 10am I believe, and keen to get out of the flat, had liberated £10 from the tin behind the marmite jar that my Mum still didn't think I knew about. Even with the sun beating down on the cracked earth I wore my uniform; tracksuit bottoms and trainers and the all-important hoodie with baseball cap. I personally hated it, but if you didn't look the part you couldn't be part of the fun. When I got to the parade of shops I scanned around and saw Rob sitting alone, idly swinging to and fro in the heat, a cigarette poking out from the depths of his hood. We all knew each other instinctively by the peak of our caps, or the shade of grey of our hoodies. It was a source of amusement that our peers were unable to identify us when it seemed so obvious to us. I joined him on the next swing.
"Alright Rob?" He glanced over at the use of his name as if jolted from a trance, and then went back to studying his feet in the dust. "Where's everyone else?"
"Looks like just you and me, Graf." He took one last drag and threw his cigarette butt on the pile of all the others. I also hated that nickname, but some bright spark put the combination of big nose and blonde hair together and came back with Steffi Graf the tennis player. I had never even heard of her. We sat and swung in silence for a while. Few people were around and those that did venture out were either bare chested for the men or skimpy tops and shorts for the women. A few threw us suspicious glances but we were immune to those.
"Got any money?" I asked. "I've got a tenner. We could get some vodka?"
"Nah mate, I've got a better idea than that."
He stood up and stalked away, stepping over the metal fence that surrounded the play area and I found myself following him. He was about 6" taller than me and much thicker set, where I was destined to be forever skinny, although a couple of months younger than me had a decent chin full of stubble where I had nothing but fluff and spots, and was charismatic where I would be instantly forgotten. In fact his demeanour was starting to concern me slightly. Never the life and soul of the party, he was usually more forthcoming than this. I could only think he had had another run in with his step dad, or maybe the constant heat was getting to him as well. There was obviously something playing on his mind so I followed in silence as he led me past the shops and down the alleyway that ran in a crescent behind the shops and flats located above. I followed into a welcome patch of shade from the fences that bordered the back of the shops. Big industrial bins lined up, some overflowing, and the sound of someone operating a power saw emanated from one of the line of garages opposite. The road here was little more than a gravel track with patches of grass growing down the middle of its uneven surface, and the litter lay dormant in the still summer heat. I relished the cool of the shade while trying to ignore the stench of the butcher's bin which was at least 10 metres away. Rob glanced up and down the alley twice before turning to me.
"OK, you know that geezer I told you about in my block?"
"Yeah, the dodgy one?" I remembered well that Rob mentioned there was a new tenant in the flat next to his in the block where he lived. This tenant should have fitted in well with the other residents; according to Rob he had the shaved head, plenty of tattoos and swagger of the majority of the male inhabitants, but alarm bells had rung when Rob had been aware of him coming and going constantly, and receiving visits from 3 other similar men most evenings. These gatherings weren't uncommon in the block, but as he lived directly next to Rob, he had been suspicious that, while he could hear the door open and slam on arrival of each of his guests, there had been no loud music and no sounds of sport on the TV, no accompanying shouts of encouragement when England had been struggling in the Euros at the time. Instead, there was no sound at all, apart from one very loud argument.
"That's right, the dodgy one. Well, I wanted to wait until it was just you and me before we tried this."
Another quick glance up and down the alley. "We're going to have a look around his flat, see what he's up to."
"Because he's dodgy as fuck and it's been 2 days since I heard a peep from him. I've not seen him move any of his stuff out and I want to see what he's got in there."
"OK, but how do you know he's got anything in there anyway?" I asked. It wasn't like we were strangers to a bit of breaking and entering but it had only ever been in posh people's houses and then only for a poke around, raiding the liquor cabinet and a chance for Nibs to go through the lady of the house's knicker drawer.
"I just know, trust me." Here was the first time I saw him smile that day. "It'll just be a bit of fun."
So I followed. We wound our way through the estate, along heat baked pavements and refreshingly cool subways. At one point, Rob hopped onto a low brick wall that ran along the edge of a line of front gardens and encouraged me to do the same. When there was a break in the wall for the pathways he leapt from one side to the other, looking back over his shoulder once he landed.
"Your turn, Graf, do what I did."
Puzzled, I lined up the jump. It was no more than 5' and I cleared it with ease. Rob seemed happy with that, but repeated it along the line of the wall, both of us clearing the dozen or so gaps with no problem. Before long, the tower block came into view, dominating the skyline.
Built in the early 70's in fashionable concrete, it sat in the middle of the estate like a beacon. Whereas, in its youth, it was a desirable place to call home, the years had not been kind and when other areas of the town had become developed and in turn became more trendy, it had gradually been overrun by the underprivileged and socially undesirable. These days, as we rounded the corner and approached the car park entrance, you could almost feel the desperation just looking at it. The cars that resided outside were all in a sorry condition, those of them that still ran. There were now two burnt out skeletons of cars amidst the old tatty sofas and refrigerators. Yet more litter had gathered in drifts against the kerbs and the polystyrene ghosts of a thousand takeaways waited for a breath of wind to send them skidding across the tarmac. I tried to avoid coming here if I could. In the years I had known Rob I had only been to the flat he shared with his mum and step dad twice, and although I felt the oppressive nature of the towering block of concrete grow the nearer we got to its shadow, Rob carried on without slowing; obviously this place was home to him.
I glanced up at identical floors with identical St George flags in the windows. Although England had crashed unceremoniously out of the Euros, I knew most of those flags had been up long before the tournament and all of them would remain up for the foreseeable future. Occasionally someone had made an effort and put some plants out on their balconies, but all too often the same cheap plastic chairs were in evidence here, or faded clothing on wire clothes horses.
I tore my gaze from the top of the block, my neck hurting from craning my head, and noticed that Rob was sitting on a low wall that ran towards the main entrance. The heat of the day had kept everyone indoors and we shared the carpark with the litter and the cars. He beckoned me over.
"Right, this could work out perfectly. My mum and Lee have gone to Auntie Rita's for a barbeque so we won't be bothered in the flat."
I was puzzled. "Your flat? I thought we were having a poke around next door?"
"Yeah, but I've given this a lot of thought, planned it out. I'm not going to kick the door in, am I? And I don't remember you being any good picking locks?"
"Fair enough." I could get into and hotwire a car, but Yale locks were a different league.
"So trust me. We'll get in another way."
"What makes you so sure he's not home?"
"I'm can't be 100% sure," he agreed. "But he used to come and go, like, 8 to 10 times a day. All the time, that bloody door slamming. Now it's been 2 days of silence. I came out 10 minutes before you turned up this morning and there's still no sign of him. I want to know what he's got cooking in there."
Then I realised; Rob assumed it was a drug den. Drugs were more Rob's thing than mine and although I had the feeling I was along for the ride, something still made me shrug my shoulders and follow him into the lobby where, unusually, the lift responded to his pushing the button. While we waited for the numbers to count down, I glanced at the mosaic of community posters crowding the notice board. There were a couple of optimistic flyers for church fetes and summer activities for the kids, but the majority were warnings against what was called anti-social behaviour. Usually I would have expected Rob to have a laugh at these but as I turned to him, his gaze was fixed on the numbers above the lift as they neared G for ground.
Presently, the dented chrome doors slid apart and revealed an elderly lady in a heavy cotton jacket accompanied by a basket on wheels. As she peered out at us, her eyes widened as she took in two identically clothed youths in hoodies and baseball caps. She clutched her jacket together as if sheltering from cold weather and dragged her trolley out after her into the dim lobby. We stood aside to allow her to pass and she hurried outside into the bright heat. Rob hit button 24 and the doors ground closed on us, cocooning us within the graffiti strewn lift. I could see at least 4 of Rob's tag on the wall, mixed with vaguely suggestive comments and jibes against fellow residents. I thought about asking Rob about the drug den but thought better of it. He seemed pretty wired and we ascended in near silence while he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
Finally, with a lurch that I felt in my stomach, the lift jolted to a halt and the empty lobby of floor 24 was revealed to us. It was slightly cleaner than the main reception, but the door to each flat had the build-up of years of grime showing on their once white paintwork. We walked down the cool corridor and when we neared Rob's door, he silently pointed to the neighbouring flat. Once within Rob's flat, he went to the fridge and fished out a much welcomed Coke for each of us. His flat was open plan; the kitchen separated from the lounge by a chipped plywood breakfast bar. The far wall of the lounge was a glare of floor to ceiling windows with the door to the balcony set within. He went to the adjoining wall and pressed his ear against it.
"These walls are made of cardboard; you can hear a bloody pin drop from next door. I ain't heard nothing for too long here. He's not in."
"OK," I said, "So, you got a key or something?"
"Nah, no key," he shook his head. "But there's another way in."
I must have looked confused, as he beckoned me to follow him, and then led me through towards the lounge and the French windows. Sweeping aside the nicotine stained net curtains; he opened the door and went out to the balcony where, I noticed, he had the same cheap plastic garden chairs aside a table with a full ashtray on it and a large St George flag hung along the railings. I followed the direction of his pointed finger and realised with a sick feeling that he was pointing to the next balcony along where the door was ever so slightly ajar.
"What?" I managed. He nodded. "Fuck off."
"Why not? It's no more than 5'. You've done that a dozen times on the way here along the brick wall."
"Yeah, but that's a 2 foot high wall. We're 24 storeys up." I went to look over the edge and he pushed me back.
"Don't look down. It's all in your head. Just imagine you're back on the brick wall."
I actually laughed. "If I fell off that wall I might get a busted knee or twisted ankle. If I fell off your balcony I doubt I would be able to walk that off."
"Just look at it," he said. "Properly look at it. We can clear that no problem. He's got nothing on his balcony too so you don't have to worry about bouncing off something else. Once we clear the gap the railings will keep you inside, then who knows what we will find on the other side. It's just a…"
"Bit of a laugh," I finished for him. I could almost see the desperation in his eyes now and knew I could back out if I really wanted to, but to do so would be marking me down as a coward, and I would never again be able to be part of his gang. It sounds stupid to say it, but in these places survival was only possible in numbers. I pushed my cap back and ran my hands over my face.
"I've given this a lot of thought, mate. All I've needed is an opportunity and now we have one. It's too good to waste but we have to do it now. I'd go alone, but…"
The penny dropped. "You can't be sure he's not at home. You need someone else to help out if he turns up with a bloody knife or something."
"Well, there is that," he conceded. "But that's not gonna happen. Just think of the opportunity here. You could help yourself to whatever you want. Come on."
With that, he stepped up onto one of the plastic chairs which bowed alarmingly under his weight, and stepped up onto the railings, steadying himself with one hand on the wall. I watched as he limbered up; legs bending, arm poised behind him and his entire focus on the opposite balcony, then with a sudden spring he was up and flying, dropping silently to one knee on the far side, springing up and pressing himself against the wall. After what seemed like an eternity I saw him relax and turn to me. He frantically waved me on.
The rational part of my brain screamed silently as I watched my feet move towards the chair and step up on it. Trying to force myself not to look down, I focused on the same patch I imagined Rob had, although my peripheral vision begged me to take in the landscape as it wrapped around the base of the tower block. I could make out identical balconies diminishing underneath my target and as I stepped up on the railing, I could feel the heat of the bricks against my hand. Up here were some gentle gusts of wind, although in my heightened state they felt like clawed hands pulling at my clothes, trying to drag me down. I could feel my heart hammering within my ribcage and the sweat gathering on my back. It was actually closer than the gaps in the brick wall had been, but my mind showed me the span as a cavernous fissure as my imagination tried to tempt me with mental images of my failure and inevitable plummet. The only thing keeping me from falling backwards to the safety of Rob's balcony was the apparent ease by which he had just made the jump. My focus was a pin point where I intended to land, but I was still aware of a hiss from Rob and a frantic wave of his hand. I tensed, and then pushed out.
My flight seemed to take much longer than it should have and I can still remember vividly each detail of my jump from the sight of my feet dangling over thin air and the descending gap in the balconies, to the wave of relief as I cleared the railing and saw concrete mere feet below me, rather than 24 storeys. Such was the effort I put into that jump, I landed much further than intended and my legs, which had turned to jelly, collapsed under me and I sprawled forwards to land on my hands and knees before rolling forward, hitting my head on the ground and coming to a halt against the railings on the far side, directly in front of the glass door. I froze.
Where Rob had landed was out of sight from the flat, but I now lay directly in view, unaware if I had cried out as I hit the ground. I risked a look and was greeted by the same nicotine stained net curtains. We both waited for a cry of alarm or explosion of movement but after a period of silence Rob moved cautiously forward and, crouching in readiness, opened the door slowly. He took a step forward and I saw what I thought was him relaxing and standing up straight. I picked myself up and took stock of the damage. I had torn holes in both knees, my palms were scraped but not bloodied and there was a tender spot on my forehead. On the whole, it could have ended so much worse. I joined Rob at the door. That's when I noticed the smell.
A couple of years ago I took a Saturday job at the butchers on the parade. I didn't last long; I thought they would let me loose with the knives, but the butcher, probably sensibly thought that a 13 year old with a knife would be trouble so the most exciting thing I got my hand on was a broom. But I never could forget the smell. It was a metallic odour which you almost tasted rather than smelt. That's what I noticed first. Pushing Rob out of the way, my already shaky legs gave way and I sank to the ground amidst the carnage.
The layout of the lounge was identical to Rob's even down to the position of most of the furniture. The walls were decorated with the same magnolia paint and similar prints were hung in similar positions. Here and there were brown crescents on the walls which, on closer inspection, were splatters. The beige carpet was ruined by more dark brown and black stains and puddles. A figure reclined on the sofa. He appeared to be watching the television, although the screen was as blank as his eyes. He was dressed all in black but his flesh was a deathly pale white and a ragged red line ran across his tattered throat. Another figure lay at his feet, face down and arms outstretched. He could have been peacefully asleep but for the vicious hunting knife protruding from his back. We stood in silence and I noticed that the only sound was the buzzing of bluebottles as they crowded around the wounds.
Finally Rob moved forward, stepping over the body on the floor. I followed at a distance, trying not to notice as I moved into the line of sight of the body on the sofa; his eyes judging me for intruding. Rob bent to the figure on the floor and, with some feral part of my brain that was still functioning; I hissed at him to stop and passed him my pair of latex gloves. He nodded and pulled them on. I left him to his examinations and moved cautiously forward towards the kitchen area.
The closer I got to the breakfast bar the more I knew what I would find there. The buzzing from more bluebottles grew ever louder and the stench of stale blood caught in my throat. I saw a pair of black boots from around the corner of the breakfast bar and forced myself to follow. He was dressed the same as the others, tight fitting black trousers and top, and was lying on his back with his head turned to the side. His skin was the same pale waxy white as his companions and it took me a while to notice the collection of thin slits in his top. The black fabric had soaked up the blood but the stab wounds were just visible. In one outstretched hand he still clasped a gun, his finger wrapped around the trigger. I jumped when Rob joined me peering over the top of the counter. I tried to force myself to calm down and breathe deeply but my heart was still racing. I pointed to the gun and he shook his head.
"I found a gun under that bloke on the carpet, but it was empty," he whispered. I wondered if he was trying not to wake our new friends.
"You would have heard the shots though, surely?"
"No, empty," he repeated. "As in no bullets in it to start with."
He moved past me and bent over the hand holding the gun. I realised he was trying to prise it loose but rigour mortis had locked the finger over the trigger as if he didn't want to give up his weapon. Instead Rob pressed a button on the side and the magazine slid out. He held it up to me.
"Empty again. Why did he try to fire it?"
"Fucked if I know," I hissed at him. "Let's get out of here."
"We haven't found him yet."
"Who, the neighbour?" I realised that's what he had been doing to the body lying face down; checking to see who it was. He nodded.
He crept into the passageway and along to the bedrooms with me in tow. He still had the gloves on so I let him ease open the first door to the spare room. He moved like the agents from a spy film we had both watched as he took a quick glance inside then shook his head at me. He repeated the action when he came to the bathroom. That left only the master bedroom at the end of the hall. The door was open.
As we stole up the hall I thought I heard a gasp from the bedroom. Rob heard it too as we both froze. As I forced myself to listen beyond the rushing blood in my ears I became aware of laboured breathing, the sound so faint as to be inaudible. The closer we got, the more of the bedroom became visible. A small wardrobe lay opposite the door and a chest of draws sat next to it. Leaning around, the end of the bed came into view and with it a pair of black clad legs dangling over the edge. I realised I was holding my breath, trying to catch the sound of breathing again, when the left foot twitched, making me jump. Rob moved his head gradually around the door frame and finally moved into the room. Gathering what was left of my tattered nerves, I joined him.
His neighbour was lying on his back on the bed, clad in the same all over black. As we watched, his chest rose and fell in time to his shallow breathing. One hand was clamped onto his stomach where vivid red blood was seeping through his fingers. On the floor next to the bed was a large kitchen knife, its steel blade now coated with thick red liquid, turning a dark brown as it dried. His head was stretched back as if in pain and his eyes were tightly closed. I could see Rob watching him, as I was, studying the shallow rise and fall of his chest, his breaths raspy and thin. We had been as quiet as we could have been, but not silent. And now, stood together at the end of the bed, we were a presence most people would have sensed, however the only movement from the man on the bed was his sporadic drawing of breath. Tearing my gaze away from the grizzly scene on the bed, I noticed a black holdall on the floor. Something caught my eye inside and I moved slowly, reaching forward and dragging it across the floor towards me. Rob turned and seemed about to stop me when he noticed the look on my face. It seemed to take an age and the noise as it softly slid across the carpet seemed deafening, but it brought no change from the man on the bed. Once I had it in my grasp, I motioned Rob to follow me back outside.
We moved back into the lounge area and I dropped the bag on the counter. It felt heavy and was bulging. As I opened it further I heard Rob exclaim from beside me.
"You can say that again." I dropped the bundle of £10 notes back into the bag. There were many bundles, some £10 some £20 and at least one £50. We looked around the carnage as if remembering we were sharing the lounge with three corpses.
"Let's get the fuck out of here."
Quickly rubbing the balcony door handle of his prints, Rob ran to the front door, pausing only to look through the spy hole into the hallway outside. Satisfied it was clear; we hustled out and along back to Rob's front door. It took him an eternity to get the key in the lock but once we were through we collapsed on the sofa and took big gulping breaths of hot summer air. I tore my hoodie off and rubbed the sweat from my brow. The bag lurked on the coffee table in front of us, daring us to look inside.
Rob divvied up the bundles between us and put my share in a JD Sports rucksack. It was full. The journey home alone across the estate was the scariest of my life. I was desperately trying to look normal while jumping at every movement and shadow. I was sure that today was going to be the day I got mugged, but against all the odds, I arrived home safe and well. I counted up my half of the haul and had to recount, not believing that you could get £95,000 in a JD sports bag. Rob used a burner phone to call the police anonymously but by the time they arrived the neighbour had bled out. The official report, I heard from Rob later, was his neighbour was the mastermind behind a raid on a post office. He had given his gang a couple of guns to wave around but, unbeknownst to them, he had removed the bullets. Then, when an argument broke out, presumably about shares of the loot, he had stabbed the other three, receiving a mortal wound from the kitchen knife in the process. That would explain why two of them had died in the process of shooting guns with no bullets in. No mention was made of the missing money.
God knows what Rob went through with a team of forensic scientists working on the other side of the wall to him and a holdall full of money. It only occurred to me this morning that, although he had the foresight to wipe his prints off the door handle, and used my latex gloves throughout, there was still quite a lot of my DNA scraped across the floor of the balcony following my landing.
Now I guess I have to wait. I haven't seen Rob since, nor am I likely to. I don't know how thorough they were in their search; if a small patch of blood on the balcony floor would warrant any attention, but every time my phone goes makes my blood run cold, and a knock on the door makes me jump. Worse still, how the hell do I spend £95,000 without causing suspicion? I always thought money was the root of all evil.