Lisa is too good-looking not to be trouble. Nick falls for her as soon as he meets the lithe young black woman, and though their drug-fueled relationship quickly turns toxic, he can’t stop wanting her. In a flash, she’s burnt through his savings and cost him his job, so she proposes a kidnapping scheme to reinvigorate their bank accounts. Nick is too smart to think it’s a good idea, but too stupid to say no. The target is Ronald Baldwin, a local businessman of moderate wealth and infinite pretension, whose obsession with the poet Rilke borders on madness. For backup, Nick invites along Dex, his psychopathic across-the-street neighbor. With three amateur criminals as unhinged as those in this group, there’s no doubt that blood will be shed. The only questions are, who will fire the first shot, and who will fire the last?
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Rilke on Black
By Ken Bruen
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Ken Bruen
All rights reserved.
I'm not a criminal.
I've done my share of dodgy things but they managed to slide under the legal line. Then I kidnapped a man, a black man. Even criminals despise this branch of the business. It smacked of cowardice and worse, stupidity.
To add insult to cliché, I did it for a woman. I don't even think I liked her a whole lot but I sure adored her.
I was working as a bouncer. I didn't wake up one morning and think "I must become a bouncer." I didn't think God whispered it. But I sure look the part. I'm six foot, four inches, weigh sixteen stone and I look mean. Shee, I've behaved mean in my time but it's not part of my nature. It could have been as my father is a drunk. Always was. A very vicious drinker. Alcohol didn't turn him that way, it just fuelled the process. My mother lit out for Bradford when I was seven. That's where she probably still is and I reckon that's penance enough.
Dad was a Hitler. At fourteen I was big and most of all, I was ready. He slapped me in the face for some infringement of his manic code and I grabbed his wrist.
"It's over," I said. "Do that again and I'll kill you."
And it was over. The final slide for him had begun. He's a wino now. No frills or hard luck story, he lived bad and peaked. At the bottom of Shaftesbury Avenue, there's a small island surrounded by theatres. A drinking school have their patch close to the traffic. Maybe they like to hear it roar. Some days I think I'll have a stroll down that way. See what plays are on and see my old dad. As lead player on the island. No doubt he sings, dances and intimidates.
"The Old Connemara Shawl".
That was his favourite. I don't think I know another. So I visualise a visit there, surprise him mid-verse. Two solid fist blows to the side of his head will rattle some memories. It would not wipe out the years of waste but it certainly would feel fine.
I have a transit van. It looks like shit and I'm glad of that. Our local thieves have more taste. But wow, does it go. The engine is souped to an insane level and I've done a lot of work on it. I'd been doing "Moves and Removals" when I got the bouncer job. I met the owner in a Clapham pub. His club, Lights, was nearby. We'd fallen into one of those semi-friendly beer chats. He'd told me who he was and I'd told him precious little. He said, "My doorman got nicked today. Drops me right in it."
"That's a pisser."
"You look as if you could handle yourself. Done any of that kind of work?"
"Does it require a shit? As I've never done anything that needed that. I've done work that might have needed jail if that's any indication."
He gave a hearty laugh. The sort they teach you on nightclub trainee courses. It means only "Watch your Wallet".
"That's a plus right enough, in fact it should be compulsory ... if you don't mind my saying so ... and I mean this in the best possible way, you look like a thug ... no offence."
I gave the laugh a try ... and said, "None taken."
My nose looks broken, or as if it should have been. I keep my hair cut real close to the skull and a dose of acne left a riddled complexion. A nondescript mouth. That's according to a woman I knew. I don't smile much. Thing is, the true thugs I've run into smile all the time. I guess 'cos they know what's coming next.
I got the job and even worse the suit, a dress one at that. A clip-on tie that comes off if grabbed. I was good. I kept trouble to a minimum and hardly hit people. Rarely hard at any rate.
I was polite and that in South-East London. That might be the best arsenal of all. I don't have much schooling but I'd been trying to educate myself.
The Reader's Digest ... "Improve Your Word Power".
I'd sweated over that, chewing the words ... fighting the shame, clawing towards clarification. To my shame, I'd begun to slip my vocabulary into use. Blame the suit.
One evening a well-dressed couple tried to enter the club. They were very pissed. But their accents ... ah ... the BBC World Service. I was trying to explain it would be better for them to call it a night. And I chanced the description "inebriated". He laughed and she roared.
"Oh Gawd Cecil, is there anything more contemptible than a chimpanzee in a suit trying to sound educated."
I might have let it go. Deep shame might have seen to that. But he took a swing. I dropped him fast and took her arm, whispered, "No darlin' ... that's not contempt ... contemptible is to kick a man when he's down."
Then I force kicked him in the bollocks.
Dex is a psychopath. I read about that type in the Reader's Digest and he fits all the buttons. He lives across the road from me. Late one night after Lights I saved him from a beating. Outside his house two guys were raising welts on him. I stepped in and they took off. He said, "I owe you big guy, and Dexy always pays off."
As he brushed himself off I got a closer look. He was short and wiry, sandy hair and the face of a teenager ... he was thirty-eight then. Maybe boyish might apply but I don't think he was ever a boy. His eyes were grey and though they looked right at you, you felt they saw something entirely different. Not anything you'd want to see. I asked if he'd like a drink and we crossed over to my home. A one up, one down basic house with a basement. I keep my gym equipment there. I poured some Scotch and he got comfortable in my armchair, said, "Chez toi."
"I'm Dexy ... after Dexy's Midnight Runners ... remember them?"
"Big numero uno with 'C'mon Eileen'."
"Missed that one. You were in the band, is that it?"
"Hey big buddy, I don't reckon you miss much. Am I right ... am I on the old money there. Fuck no, I wasn't with the band, I used to take dexedrine, a lot of them evil suckers."
I nodded. Seemed he was still taking something fairly lethal. My measure perhaps. He drained the Scotch, held up the glass.
"Yo' partner. Hit me again with one of them piledrivers. So, have you got a handle, amigo?"
"Yer name. Jeez ... what's this tight-mouthed act, fella? I ain't going to quote you, you can risk more than a monosyllable. Go for it guy, try one of them full sentences."
I didn't even have a twinge of irritation. I thought he wasn't firing on a full tank. I said, "Nick."
"Now that's a man's name. No friggin' frills. Just out and out plain label. How about I call you Nicky, how would that be?"
His accent was all over the shop. From American through plumminess to Irish. And always in the shadow of South-East London. I poured some more Scotch, said, "I'm too set in my ways to call a grown man 'Dexy' ... OK. So I'll settle for Dex and how about you call me the name I told you I had."
He gave a huge grin. Not a pretty sight.
"I like it ... yeah Nick and Dex the deadly duo. Sharp ... you're a sharp dude ... I can tell you'll need watching."
He leapt to his feet and patted his stomach.
"Not an ounce of fat ... I'm in shape old buddy."
I dunno if there's an answer to this but he was looking round the room. The pile of Reader's Digests were painfully visible.
"Not a dentist are you Nick?"
Next he moved to the music system. I'd always planned on laying in some classical albums for show. Just go down to the market and buy a shit-load of culture. Mikados and stuff, fluff in some Concertinas and Allegros. What I had was Country and Western. An awful lot, a mini Nashville. I was beginning to gauge Dex a little and he didn't disappoint me. He gave a rebel yell and said, "I get it, you're a Rod-eoo star. Not the best town for it but I guess you took a wrong turn somewhere. No worries pal, I've taken a few of those myself."
He selected Reba McEntire and put her on ... loud.
I said, "Why don't you just make yourself right at home, how would that be. Don't stand on ceremony."
Reba was bemoaning yet another done-her-wrong-man number.
Dex was wearing a light cotton suit. He flicked his hand against the jacket, said, "Sh-ee-it ... I should be wearing Levi's ... wow that bitch doesn't half whine eh? Now me, I like a blast of Heavy Metal. Give the old Metal to that dog eh ..."
This was no surprise.
We finished the bottle and he told me he was a businessman. All of it seemed shady and risky. I don't imagine he'd have wanted it otherwise. That's how I got to meet him. We didn't ever become friends as Dex was incapable of that, but we saw each other a lot.
He fascinated me ... and I think I amused him. Not from my wit but from his ribbing me. He liked to see how far he could push it and he was prepared to go as far as he could. I think Dex rose in the morning, opened his wardrobe and took whatever personality was current. Sometimes it fitted. Other times he was just dangerous.
He spent a lot of time at my place. I was never surprised to find him there, day or night. A Dobermann might have been better security but I'm willing to argue the point. A late Sunday morning, I was bleary eyed from rowdy crowds at the club. Feeling touchy as I'd had to hit a yuppie. Don't get me wrong. Sometimes a slap is the only reply but I didn't ever get to feel good about it. I was spooning instant into a mug and contemplating a second spoon to get in gear. Cold metal pushed hard below my left ear and Dex whispered, "Freeze mother-fuckhah."
Then he withdrew the pistol, laughed and said, "Had you going Nicky ... you were shitting bricks ... go on. Admit it."
My hands were trembling and it was a few moments before I could lay down the cup and spoon. I turned slowly. He was holding an automatic pistol and pointing it at me. He said, "Cat got your tongue?"
"Put down the gun, Dex, OK"
"But you haven't seen the best bit ..." and he squeezed the trigger.
Banging on empty, six times and then it jammed. I swung with my left. The blow knocked him across the kitchen. The gun clattered across the floor and wedged beneath the fridge. I stood over him and a look, momentarily, of fear with rage filled his face ... then it fled. For an instant the beast was exposed. I think I glimpsed the soul of hell itself.
My old man used to give me ferocious beatings. That's what I had intended for Dex but that look took it all away. Instead I said, "If you ever point a gun at me again, be sure of two things. One, that the gun is loaded, two ... that you fully plan to use it."
He said, "Does this mean I have to make my own coffee?"
I left the pistol lying beneath the fridge. On ice so to speak.
A week later I was working when a cab pulled up outside the club. Three black women piled out and they were in hyper humour. Giggling, jostling, giving high fives. They were dressed for action with short skirts, sheer stockings and to me they appeared a jumble of desire. My mouth went dry.
All had pretty faces but the tallest of them was striking. As they approached I said, "It's the Three Degrees."
The tall one answered, "A white boy with a mouth. Yo' white boy, y'all gonna let us in yo' club?"
As I swept them in, she added in a posh voice, "Do pray tell us white boy, where you got your suit?"
I touched her arm lightly and said, "I'll tell you if we can come to a small arrangement."
Her accent reverted to sass.
"Wot arrangement that be white boy, wot can y'all do for little ol' Lisa. How that be ... huh ..."
"How it would be Lisa is, if you don't call me white boy, I won't call you nigger ... how would that suit y'all ?"
It seemed as if she might lash out but her eyes changed to devilry instead. Skipped inside. I've heard all that shit about a touch being electric. Hell, I've got Ann Murray belting out, "Touch me and I'm weak."
I believed none of it. What I learnt early was if you touch the wrong person, be prepared to lose the hand from the elbow. I lived on that preparation as second nature. Yet my fingers tingled where they'd held her arm. I shrugged and thought, "Time I got laid is all."
Midway throughout the evening, one of the staff brought me a glass of Guinness and said a customer had sent it with a message,
"'Cos you like a touch of black."
I got involved in a fracas at closing so I didn't see the woman leave. You'll have noticed my use of fracas there. The study wasn't entirely wasted and it gives a hint of class to a punch up. When I'd changed, I got in my van and was revving the engine, just to feel the power. A tap at the window and there she was.
"What's a girl got to do for a lift around here?"
I thought she could do with coming down a notch but said wittily, "Climb in."
As she did, her skirt hiked up to her hips and I felt the stirrings. She smiled and said, "Gun it Bubba."
I thought of Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road":
The door is open
but the Ride
it ain't free
"Where to?" I asked.
"High Street Kensington. Y'all want to help me lick some fish and chips?"
She can't have been more than twenty-five yet her eyes had the light of an old soul. Not a particularly compassionate one. But they drew me. Her body was lush. I dunno any other word. It made me think of words like ripe, but mainly ravishment. As the engine kicked into gear, so did the sound system. Merle Haggard and his lonesome blues.
She lit a joint, held it deep and exclaimed, "Shit-kicker, music ... the ol' Red Rock Call to Arms ... Where's the white folk at ... yahoo ... let's go lynch us a darkie."
The gears ground in time to my teeth.
As we turned into High Street Ken, she said, "Ain't ya got no respect?"
That was it. I jammed on the brakes.
"Respect ... you friggin talk about that and you smoke dope in my van without so much as a by-your-leave. You have some motor mouth lady."
"Whoa John-boy. I was meaning the music ... don't you have any Aretha?"
God forgive me, I said, "Aretha Franklin."
"Oh no, Aretha O'Shea ... get your head off yo' dick boy ... there's a chip shop ... my treat."
She jumped out and ran off. I turned off Merle and as if on cue, a cop appeared. I saw the panda car in my rear-view mirror. One got out and sauntered towards me, adjusting his cap. No doubt about it, the cops see too many cop shows. I let him do his finger number for me to roll down the window. What the hell I thought, it's his script.
"Would you like to alight from the vehicle, Sir."
Then we did the dance. Where had I come from, was the van licensed, insured, dry cleaned? All the rigmarole of polite intimidation.
We both knew our roles. I was nearly forty years old then and like the cliché goes, he looked about seventeen. A spiteful nasty piece of work. Throw in the touch of power and you've got serious damage.
We'd come to the precipice part. Where he asks me to thin out my pockets and lets my property slip to the ground. I was just beginning to lose my place in the play when Lisa appeared. Her accent would have equalled Lady Di's.
"What on earth is going on here officer? What's your duty number? Does Chief Inspector Falls know you're harassing my removal firm?"
To me she said, "Walter, get the mobile and I'll phone the Chief Inspector at home, we'll get to the bottom of this immediately."
The old scalded-cat effect. Boy did the copper pull back, even removed his cap. I knew then why they sometimes call apologies "profuse". He was back in the panda and outa there in jig time. I don't even think he'd had time to notice that Lisa was black. She handed me a bundle of chips and vinegar. The smell you feel your childhood should have been.
As we got back in the van I said, "Chief Inspector Falls?"
"Oh, that was the first name that popped into my head ... I nearly said Cloiseau."
"You mean there isn't such a person?"
"Oh, there's always a Chief Inspector Falls ... only the name changes."
She held up a long chip and tilted her head back, let the vinegar drip into her mouth, then, slow, took the chip down, sucked and swallowed it. Turning to me she said, "I so like it slippery and wet, to tease a moment before I bite down."
"Where to?" I asked and tried to hide my physical reaction. I didn't know if her last description was a threat or an embellishment ... I do know it sounded like heat.
She lived in Kensington Church Street and asked me in for a drink. The elevator was one of those narrow Gestapo jobs with a gate. It was a tight squeeze. How did I feel. I felt me all over her. She was smiling, said, "Remember that song 'If you don't know me by now'?"
Fairly heavy perspiration was rife on my forehead. She added, "You're probably thinking of that elevator scene from Fatal Attraction."
Why deny it?
As we fumbled from the horror chamber she said, "It proves one thing."
I dreaded to know.
Excerpted from Rilke on Black by Ken Bruen. Copyright © 1996 Ken Bruen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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