THE SAFE HOUSEBy Tom Leins
The elderly woman’s face explodes in a ruptured mess of cartilage and bone as my lumpen forehead makes contact with the bridge of her nose. That’s going to leave a fucking mark.
I wipe her blood out of my eyes and survey the wreckage. There are two men on the ground, bleeding from their broken mouths. Both punters, by the look of it. Cheap suits and rancid aftershave – the stink of which does little to mask their sweaty excitement at being in a suburban brothel on a Friday evening. Somehow, I don’t think their night is turning out quite how they planned.
I spring off the heart-shaped bed and launch myself at the scrawny man in the black silk shirt, my brass knuckles connecting with the oily strands of hair plastered across his discoloured scalp. I wrench the knuckle-duster free of the greasy, bloody tangle and move towards the door. The screaming hookers are giving me a fucking headache.
I sidestep his co-worker – a fat motherfucker with a knuckle-knife – and the blade misses my heart as his fingers crunch into my elbow and the knife rips my jacket. I swivel sharply and force the same elbow into his jawbone. It connects with a satisfying crunch of busted teeth. I sweep his legs for good measure and his chubby head hits the doorframe. One madam and two security guards, Malinquo told me. Job done.
I beckon to the girl, Barbie, and she peels herself off the far wall and tiptoes through the carnage. She was easy to find. The only black girl in the brothel. I rip a satin sheet off the nearest bed and pass it to her, to wrap herself in. Like everything else in the room, it reeks of stale semen and old cigarette smoke.
We’re halfway down the dimly-lit corridor when I feel the gun barrel against the back of my shaven skull.
“Hey motherfucker, kiss the ground.”
I nod and lower myself towards the linoleum. I launch my right boot backwards into the space where one of his knees should be and my heel makes contact with a sick crack. The triggerman lands on me with a grunt, his gun discharging into the corridor wall. I wriggle out from under him and stamp on his wrist, kicking the gun towards the lobby. He’s a big bastard – looks like he could do a lot of damage to a man like me.
Sure enough, he springs to his feet and assumes a boxer’s stance. Younger, taller and healthier than me, he lets rip with a jab-hook-uppercut combo that snaps my head back and leaves me smeared across the corridor wall. He chuckles sourly – presumably anticipating a better fight – and edges closer.
I learned a long time ago not to leave blood, phlegm or semen at a crime scene, but that won’t be possible today.
I spit blood in his eyes and sidestep his right hook. I double him over with a punch to the gut and drive my knee into his face. Once. Twice. Three times.
Barbie is trembling in the lobby, the satin sheet still wrapped around her scrawny body. I retrieve the Glock from the lino for safekeeping and tuck it down the back of my jeans.
“Come on. Let’s go.”
My skull throbs, and I feel my right eye swell up. I push Barbie in front of me and she wobbles on the uneven pavement in her transparent heels, so I grab her elbow to steady her. I raise my hood and keep my eyes directed at the pavement, cautious to avoid any unexpected CCTV entanglements. We walk for at least ten minutes, switching direction every two streets.
We’re on a suburban street I don’t recognise. A small strip of boarded-up retail units with deserted-looking flats above them. I see a bus stop with shattered windows and a concrete bench seat and tell Barbie to sit down. I’ve no idea if she knows what’s going on, because she looks more nervous than she did back in the brothel.
I remove the mobile phone that Malinquo gave me from my shredded jacket. It’s a late ’90s Nokia, the kind drug dealers favour for the battery life. I dial the saved number with a bloody forefinger, leaving crimson fingerprints all over the handset. The machine picks up with a robotic click. I say nothing, like Malinquo told me – just wait twenty seconds and then hang up.
I blink away the rain, feeling woozy.
I try to fight the wave of tiredness and nausea that washes over me. Next to me, Barbie feels angular as she shivers uncontrollably.
I drift in and out of consciousness, unsure how much time has passed, when I’m blinded by full-beam headlights at the end of the road. Malinquo’s driver, I hope, as I’m in no fit state for another ruck.
I feel the tell-tale bulge of his shoulder holster against my ribcage as he heaves me onto the back seat of the hatchback. His face is stubbled and his aftershave reminds me of the ruined men in the brothel.
The last thing I remember is Barbie’s smile. She looks relaxed for the first time since we met.
When I was hired, I was told that she was West African. Trafficked into the country by one of Malinquo’s associates, only to end up in the wrong venue, in the wrong fucking town.
“Unless you have a basic grasp of French, don’t waste energy trying to strike up a conversation,” I was told.
It might be the delirium, but when she greets the driver, it sounds like she has a fucking Bristolian accent.
Blood. Piss. Pain. Chaos. Welcome to my world.
I pass out before we reach the end of the street.
Six hours later
It was an extraction. Nothing more, nothing less. I’ve rescued dozens of girls from dozens of brothels over the last decade, and the jobs pay well with minimal blowback. Occasionally, months or years later, I bump into a familiar face in a pub. Either a working girl, or a punter, or a bouncer, but they always blink first and look away – remembering the havoc I wreaked during our brief acquaintanceship.
Malinquo was a new client, but the job sounded legit, and he offered double my going rate – payment upfront. The money, address and phone were handed to me in the car park of a derelict pub by his driver, a thickset cliché with an unbranded bomber jacket and a freshly shaved head. Again, not particularly unusual. Men with dirty secrets like to obscure their business interests with middle-men and subterfuge, to ensure deniability. Malinquo didn’t seem too different.
Now, I find myself propped against the corrugated iron wall of a barn, staring at the morning rain. The barn is mercifully empty: no animals and no animal shit. Across the concrete courtyard is a dilapidated farmhouse. There’s an unsteady-looking pile of half-rusted appliances in one corner of the yard and a skip full of rubble a few feet from the front door.
On the floor next to me are a bottle of Happy Shopper mineral water and a Mars bar. The seal on the bottle looks like it’s been tampered with. I unscrew the lid and sniff the contents. Despite the lack of smell, I toss it aside. I haul myself off the floor and shake some life into my aching limbs. I check my jeans for the Glock, but it’s been removed, as has the mobile phone. Weirdly, a four-digit code has been written on the back of my left hand with marker pen.
My throat is parched, so I walk across to the far end of the barn, remove the rotten length of hose pipe attached to the stand pipe, twist the handle and drink thirstily from the cold trickle. Then I eat the Mars bar and try to take in my surroundings. Apart from the farmhouse, there’s not another building for miles. As far as my bloodshot eyes can see.
Even if there was, the boggy terrain and lashing rain dissuade me from attempting to flee the scene. I’m assuming I’m somewhere on Dartmoor, or down in Cornwall – places I can navigate my way home from – but I was out cold for long enough to be almost anywhere in the UK. I take another drink from the tap and piss in the corner of the barn. My urine is dark yellow. Dehydrated, but no blood, which is something, at least.
I stare at the farmhouse. I’ve been dumped here for a reason, and whoever – or whatever – is waiting inside for me feels as inevitable as a bullet.
I stare at the building a moment longer, noticing the bricked-up windows, then start to walk across the courtyard.
I’m not a man resigned to my fate. Fuck, no. I look fate in the eye and I don’t fucking blink.
The thick oak door looks ancient, but it has a brand-new, hi-tech lock affixed to it. So new, in fact, I can still see traces of sawdust and wood shavings on the ground in front of the porch. I double check the four digits that the driver wrote on the back of my hand and prod them into the adjacent keypad. The heavy door unlocks with a mechanical click, and I heave it open and step into the small porch.
Less than ten feet away, there’s a metal detector in front of the next door. It’s not a new model – its white casing is grubby with age, and the equipment looks rudimentary, like the kind of kit you’d find in a regional airport. The laminated, handwritten sign sellotaped to the machine says ‘No Weapons Allowed’.
My brass knuckles were removed along with the gun, so I step through the machine, which emits a brief, shrill warning. I step back and remove the pig-knife from my boot, dropping it in the wheelie bin and pass through the metal detector – and the door behind it. Metal sheeting this time, like the kind used to keep vagrants out of abandoned buildings.
I brace myself for punches, kicks, maybe a lump of masonry aimed at my skull, but all I see are three defeated-looking middle-aged men, sat on ratty mattresses against the back wall.
A man with a doughy face and a receding hairline hauls himself off his mattress. Apart from his fleshy features, he looks pretty solid. Tall, with a slight gut. His white shirt is grimy, so he must have been here for some time.
“Welcome to the fucking party, son.”
Then the metal door slides back into place behind me.
He edges closer, but not too close. Even from ten feet away he stinks like an unrefrigerated corpse.
“You got any ciggies, new boy?”
I shake my head.
“Don’t smoke, mate. Smoking can kill you.”
He grunts and paces the perimeter, shaking his head with irritation. I recognise him from somewhere, but I’m not sure where. When you’ve been punched in the face as often as I have, a blast from the past needs to have the velocity of a fucking shotgun blast to snag my attention.
I turn towards my other two companions. The second figure isn’t a man at all, but a woman with a shaved head, a faded army surplus jacket – and a gangrenous looking stump where her left foot should be. Up close, she’s grubby, but pretty, with prominent cheekbones and large, bruise-coloured lips. A thick pink scar traverses her stubbled hairline.
The last man looks up briefly and scowls at me through his unruly black beard. He spits on the ground distastefully, crossing his arms over his chest, without saying a word. He’s swaddled in a thick, garishly-patterned robe that reminds me of the carpets you used to be able to buy on Winner Street in the ’80s and ’90s. He looks Middle Eastern, but it’s hard to tell.
“What the fuck is this place?”
The big man grinds to a halt, seemingly pleased by the question.
“It’s a safe house, son, but not one I’ve ever seen on the books – which pretty much rules out Devon and Cornwall.”
“Hold up, mate. ‘On the books’? Are you a fucking cop?”
He nods. “DS Robert Southern. Bobby to my mates. Seventeen years on the job. Currently suspended on full pay, pending an, erm, inquiry.”
The woman clears her throat. “Our sloppy friend here was caught stealing drugs and guns from the evidence locker at Charles Cross nick on behalf of Mr fucking Malinquo.”
The big man frowns. I step towards him.
“The only thing worse than a cop is a bent fucking cop.”
He stands his ground, juts out his chest, his jaw, breathing heavily through his nose.
I feel my fists clench, then I step back from the brink.
“Hold up: you two know Malinquo too?”
They both nod.
The girl is the first to speak: “Unfortunately, we do.”
Bobby Southern leans against the far wall, trying to spark up a cigarette butt he found on the floor.
“To say I know him is overstating the case, son. He paid me to retrieve certain incriminating items on his behalf and fixed me up with this safe house while he sorted my new passport and papers. That was… what day is it now?”
He puffs gamely on the dog-end and counts using his fingers.
“Eight fucking days ago.”
“Who has been here the longest? You?”
He nods. “Me first. Then fucking stumpy, then laughing boy, now you.”
I stare at him. He looks shifty.
“First man in, last man out, right? Sounds like maybe you orchestrated it, Southern. Veteran cop. Friends in high places. Time to settle some scores before you check out. What is it? Terminal illness? Something eating away at your bones? Your insides? Getting in God’s good books before you shuffle off this mortal coil, are you?”
He scoffs and turns away. Abruptly, he pivots and slams his right fist into my jaw, knocking me off my feet and leaving me leaking blood.
The girl laughs nastily, and I shuffle backwards on my arse, in case Southern wants a second helping.
“I’ve told you my truth, son. Now you tell me yours. Who the fuck are you, anyway?”
I consider what I should tell them. I was an unlicensed private investigator for many years, but the rules of the game were starkly defined, and that line of work never really suited me.
I wipe my bloody lips on my sleeve.
“I do jobs for people. The kind of jobs no one else wants to do.”
He clicks his fingers. “You’re Rey right? Joe Rey?”
I nod and he grins unpleasantly.
“I had to clean up after that little clusterfuck with the Grinley Family down at Marsh Mills.” He whistles through his teeth. “That was a real number you did on those inbred bastards. Of course, we pinned it on the fucking Albanians. Any excuse to roust those dirty fuckers!”
I massage my jaw. It feels like it might be broken.
“Sure. That’s me. Nice to know that my reputation precedes me. Always nice to meet a fucking fan…”
He smiles, big hands on his hips. “Well, I suppose there are worse people to be locked in a fucking safe house with. Right stumpy?”
She flashes him a middle finger. “Fuck off, Sarge.”
She closes her eyes and leans her head back against the stonework. “My name’s Zula Hook, and yeah, I know Malinquo too.”
Zula tells us that she was a professional kickboxer – until she lost her fucking foot.
In her owns words, she was an also-ran – constantly coming up against bigger, quicker, tougher opponents. A disgraced ex-trainer suggested she should use Oradexon to help her bulk up, stay competitive. Within six months, she was injecting the shit between her toes daily. One bad batch from Bangladesh later, the foot went gangrenous, and actually burst during a fight. It was too far gone to save.
She sighs heavily. “A girl I used to knock around with, Geena, wanted to rip off one of the houses she cleaned at. A place in Riverside. Million-pound house. Easy pickings. I was depressed, drinking heavily – and didn’t take much convincing to go in with her on a job. She said she would be the brains, I would be the brawn. I made it back to the car. She got nicked on the premises,” she gestures to Bobby Southern, “by this shit stain and his mates. Geena went down for a five-stretch in Dartmoor, I walked.”
“Or hobbled,” Southern chuckles.
She scowls at him.
“A few months later, I was approached to steal an item from the same property. A solid gold cock ring, if you can believe it. I’m no thief, but I knew enough to disable the alarm and get in and out with a minimum of fuss.”
“A thief stays a thief, unless she ends up in jail or dead,” Southern scoffs.
Zula ignores him.
“I acquired the cock ring and dialled the number on the burner phone. The driver turned up to collect me, as arranged. Before I knew what was happening, there’s a tranq dart in my neck and I woke up here, with the Sarge.”
Bobby Southern smiles contentedly, hands still on his hips, and turns to face the guy with the beard.
“What about you, loud-crowd?”
The bearded man snorts dismissively. “I have never heard of this Malinquo that you speak of.”
“Who the fuck are you?”
“Even my best friends don’t know my real name. I certainly have no intention of discussing my past with common criminals like you.”
Southern grunts. “Suit yourself, chuckles.”
It’s my turn to pace the room. I feel like a caged rat.
I trawl through my rolodex of pungent memories. How do I know these fucking people? How do they know me?
I stare at the thick scar across Zula’s hairline, making no effort to conceal my curiosity. I recognise her. From the bareknuckle scene. She once beat a gypsy called Franky Elias at one of ‘Mucky’ Mickey Molloy’s ‘Bloody Knuckles’ tournaments in the South Hams.
After the fight, Elias got drunk with his cousins and bounced her head off one of the concrete-filled oil drums that formed the four corners of the ring. She lost so much blood I assumed she had died.
I point to Southern’s knuckles. They look smashed and misshapen.
“Are you a fighter, mate?”
He nods. “I’ve had a few scraps.”
“Once or twice. If the price was right.”
“You ever work one of Mucky Mickey’s tournaments?”
He nods. “Once. Or twice.”
Then the slow clap starts.
“I knew I could count on our private eye friend Mr Rey to unravel this little mystery! Truly, he’s not as dumb as he looks!”
The Middle Eastern inflection is gone, replaced with a smoother, more formal accent. A tone more suited to boardrooms than addressing bastards like me. He lowers his hood. His nails are manicured, his hair a neatly trimmed side-parting.
“You are truly wasted brutalising brothel-keepers, Mr Rey.”
I stare at him in disbelief.
“You? You’re fucking Malinquo?”
Zula struggles to her feet and joins us, standing over him.
“As I have already informed you: not even my best friends know my real name.”
Southern moves closer to Malinquo, his big, veiny fists tensing. He spits on the ground and looms over the seated man. Surreally, Southern starts reading him his rights:
“I am arresting you on suspicion of kidnapping. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”
Malinquo – or whatever the motherfucker’s name is – shakes his head and withdraws a gun from the folds of his ugly robe, placing it against Bobby Southern’s rubbery jowls. He pulls the trigger and the bent cop’s face explodes like a melon that’s been dropped off a multi-storey car-park.
“I have nothing in common with you fucking people,” he shouts – to no one in particular.
I back off, careful not to tread in the bloody halo forming around Bobby Southern’s bullet-shattered skull.
“Don’t be shy, Mr Rey. You weren’t backwards in coming forwards on twentieth June last year.”
I scratch my head.
“I’m sorry, mate, I don’t follow.”
Malinquo grimaces. “That afternoon you participated in ‘Bloody Knuckles 15’, an unlicensed boxing tournament organised by the late Michael John Molloy.”
The late Mr Molloy? That’s news to me.
“If you say so, mate.”
“At the end of the fight, Mr Molloy orchestrated what I believe is termed a ‘Battle Royale’ for any interested combatants. He had made more than ten thousand pounds on the betting action that day, and offered a bonus of a thousand-pound fee for the last man – or woman – still standing. Nine of the sixteen fighters were willing to take part.”
Zula looks at me guiltily, but I have no idea why.
“During the next hour each one of you…cretins…inflicted life-changing injuries on my twenty-two-year-old son.”
I stare at the floor.
I was ejected from the rumble by a career criminal named Snaith who almost busted my windpipe with a chokehold and kicked me face-first into the dead grass. Before that, I remember beating on a kid using my fists, elbows, knees. He was solidly-built, gym-toned, clean-cut. He took the hits and he kept on coming.
“My son – my only son – wanted to become a mixed martial arts fighter. Naturally, I paid for the most experienced trainers, the best nutritionists, the finest physicians. In his first professional fight – on the undercard at a badly-promoted event in Plymouth – a rabid-looking Scotsman nicknamed ‘Cerberus’ detached his retina with an elbow to the face. My son was never allowed to fight professionally again, and within a year he was fighting on farmland with savages like you people. My son is now in a permanent vegetative state.”
Malinquo raises his gun. “My revenge has been a long time in coming, Mr Rey, Ms Hook. It has been an elaborate operation, and I could have paid a small-town hitman to do the job just as well, but I wanted to look you all in the eye while you bleed out – just like I did with that rotten specimen, Molloy.”
After the fight, when the kid was lying limp in the mud, I remember that Molloy offered anyone who was interested two hundred fifty pounds if they could throw the unconscious body over his static caravan. The man I now know as Bobby Southern tried twice, before putting his back out. I still remember the sound the meaty body made as it crunched into the aircon unit on the side of the caravan. After that, I walked away.
He points the weapon at my face, his eyes burning with fury. “Oh, fuck.”
At that moment, Zula launches into an improbable roundhouse kick. Her stump judders into Malinquo’s bearded jaw, and one of the rotten pustules on her diseased-looking ankle bursts, coating his beard in scummy-looking blood. The gun drops from his hand.
Malinquo struggles to his feet, a look of pure hate in his eyes. “Revenge will be mine!”
I knock him out with one punch.
I rip apart the mattress with my bare hands and use the rancid fabric to gag Malinquo and bind his wrists and ankles. His eyes flicker open, so I kick his jaw like it’s a football.
Zula sits on the concrete floor, tears in her eyes, blood-streaked pus oozing from her stump.
“You remember the kid?”
She wipes her tears on her sleeve.
“No one forced him to be there that day. He was there of his own free will, and he was bigger than me, and bigger than fucking you.”
“It’s not right…”
“It never is, Zula. It never is.”
I shake my head, unwilling to discuss matters further.
“Hey, you still got your phone?”
She nods and unzips her army jacket, peeling off the white vest beneath. She looks embarrassed as she unfurls the bandages taping her breasts down. The bandage goes slack as it unravels, and the mobile phone falls loose onto the concrete. It’s an old Nokia, just like the one I was given. I pick it up, locate the contacts section and dial the saved number. Same routine as before: I wait for the click, count to twenty, and then hang up.
We have to use Malinquo’s thumbprint to open the door to the lobby. I’m glad it’s not a retina scan, as the motherfucker is out cold, eyeballs rolled into the back of his skull.
I upend the wheelie bin. Zula removes her prosthetic from the small, pointless pile of criminal detritus and fixes it to her leg. I slip the pig-knife into my boot. Then we emerge blinking into the rain.
Zula retrieves a half-brick from the skip, adjusts her grip so that her fingers nestle in the groove. I root around until I find a suitable weapon. A length of rebar with an ancient lump of concrete attached. Easily capable of shattering a windscreen. Or a skull.
I glance across at her.
“You up for this?”
She nods and speaks through gritted teeth. “Whatever it takes.”
We wait in silence. Less than an hour later we see headlights as the hatchback bumps down the rutted mud track towards the farmhouse.
Thick raindrops dance in front of the full-beam headlights.
Not for the first time, I look fate in the eye and I don’t fucking blink.
Tom Leins is a crime writer from Paignton, UK. His books include Boneyard Dogs, Ten Pints of Blood and Meat Bubbles & Other Stories (all published by Close to the Bone) and Repetition Kills You and The Good Book: Fairy Tales for Hard Men (both available from All Due Respect). His next book, Sharp Knives & Loud Guns, is coming soon from All Due Respect. For more details, please visit: https://thingstodoindevonwhenyouredead.wordpress.com/