London—Twenty Years Ago
I could smell it. Bacon. Greasy, fatty bacon. It was making my stomach twist harder as I scavenged through the huge bin at the back of the burger joint I raided daily. My frantic hands were digging like my life depended on it, rummaging down and down though soggy chips and bread to find the good stuff. When I moved a cardboard box and the scent intensified, wafting up into my filthy face, I very nearly looked to the heavens in thanks. But I didn’t, because if there was a god, I wouldn’t have been rummaging through a bin like a tramp.
I was pretty sure bacon had never looked so good, and the piece I’d found had the remnants of melted cheese smothered far and wide. My mouth watered; my tummy growled hard. I shoved it past my teeth and chewed like a child possessed, swallowing way too soon. I should have savored it. Who knew when I’d find another piece of heaven like that, because, let’s face it, who took off the bacon on a bacon cheeseburger? It was my lucky day.
Dusting off my hands, I jumped down from the edge of the bin, wincing a tiny bit at the sharp pain in my rib. Pulling up my T-shirt, one of only two I had which was three sizes too small, even for my emaciated ten-year-old frame, I inspected the damage.
“Bastard,” I muttered, taking in the colorful patches over my torso, an ugly blend of purples, yellows, black, and blues. I was a dense fool. He’d told me to trust him. He’d promised not to cuff me if I did as I was told and got his beer. The moment I held out the can, he’d taken it and proceeded to pound me with it. It didn’t hurt. Never did during the actual beating. It was afterward, when I had escaped the arsehole and was no longer making myself numb, that the pain kicked in. Part of me knew when I took what he dished out without so much as a murmur, it made him angrier. But I learned years before that I got satisfaction in knowing I frustrated him. He’d never see me beg. He’d never see my pain. Never. Not even when he pinned me face first to the kitchen table and shoved his dick in my arse.
I picked up my feet and started strolling down the alley toward the main road. Not even the biting cold affected me anymore. I was hardened. Used to the slow torture that was my sad life. I was wearing a T-shirt, half ripped up one side exposing my scrawny torso. In December. It was minus one degrees, and I couldn’t feel a damn thing.
I just made it to the end of the alley when I heard my name being called. The voice should have made me break into a sprint and run away. But instead, I turned, finding Pedro, a boy from the posh estate up the road. He was flanked by his usual crew of five, all kids better off than me. It wasn’t a hard feat. Pedro was Italian. His family owned a restaurant on the main drag where I’d often scavenged. The first time I scrounged through the bin looking for leftovers, he caught me. From that day, Pedro made it his mission to make my life miserable. Or even more miserable.
The six boys circled me, and I passed my eyes over each one. I wasn’t scared. In fact, I was more in awe of their clean clothes and their brand-new trainers. They were all Italian. Cousins, I think. But Pedro was the leader of the gang, and he was also the largest by a clear foot, both in height and width.
“Find anything tasty, little tramp?” Pedro asked, nodding to the bin I had just crawled out of. His cousins started tittering, like they hadn’t heard him ask me the very same question a dozen times before. I didn’t bother answering. My reply wouldn’t have changed the outcome, and running away would have made the next time he caught me a longer encounter. So I stood and waited for him to approach me, shutting down for the second time that day. His grin was wicked as he leaned in and sniffed me before wrinkling his nose in disgust. “Well?” he prompted.
“Bacon,” I answered stoically. “It was better than that shit pasta I find in your family’s bins.”
His face faltered before he quickly gathered himself and his disgust grew. Sickly, I relished in it, despite the beating I knew was coming. “Cut him,” he spat, elbowing the tall lanky boy beside him. I think they called him Bony. I smiled on the inside. He had nothing on me.
Bony produced a flick knife from his stylish jeans, inspecting the blade. I should have flinched. I didn’t. Nothing I faced fazed me at that point in my life. “Get on with it,” I goaded him, stepping forward. His lip curled, and his arm shot forward. My eyes slammed shut, yet I didn’t move anything else, as I felt the blade sink into the flesh of my cheek and drag a few inches down.
The gang cheered, clearly thrilled with today’s work, and I opened my eyes, feeling warm dampness sliding down my face, meeting the corner of my mouth. I flicked my tongue out and licked up some blood, reacquainting myself with the coppery taste.
“You’re sick, man,” Pedro spat.
“Want a taste?” I reached up to my cheek and dragged my finger down through the stream of blood, presenting it to him.
The rage in his eyes thrilled me as he advanced forward, ready to land a few brutal thumps to my face. I was more than ready. Every minute of my life, I was ready. What I endured at home made it easy to take whatever this piece of spoiled shit threw my way.
Pedro pulled his fist back, but the sound of screeching tires halted him in his tracks, and we all turned in unison to see a beat-up old Merc speeding toward us. Pedro and his gang split. Me? I stood and watched as two more cars entered the alley, two other Mercs, but these ones brand new. One raced up behind the old Merc, and one came in from the other end of the alley, blocking it in.
I stepped back into the shadows and watched as six huge, suited men stepped out of the two new Mercs, three men from each car. Despite it being December, they all wore sunglasses. And straight faces. They were all mean-looking motherfuckers. One opened the back door of one of the cars, and then another man emerged, this one distinctly separated from the others in a cream linen suit. He took his time, straightening out the few creases in his jacket before he swept a hand through his hair. He looked important. Powerful. Fearless. Respected. It was obvious to me, even as a ten-year-old, that he’d earned it. He wasn’t simply a bully. I was instantly in awe of him.
I watched in fascination as he strolled toward the old Merc and opened the driver’s door. Then I heard a plea for mercy.
And then I heard a loud bang. A gunshot.
I blinked a few times, mesmerized, as the cream-suited man coolly shut the door of the old Merc and started to wander casually back to one of the cars. I looked across to the old Merc and saw blood splattered everywhere, a body slumped over the steering wheel.
“Deal with it,” the cream-suited man said, lifting his trousers at the knees to get back into the car.
It was then I saw it. A man across the way through some caged fencing, scrambling up onto a high wall that looked over the alleyway. And in his hand, a gun. He looked like bad news. Too tatty and dirty to be with the smart-suited men in the shiny new Mercs, and before I could register my mouth moving, I was shouting, “Hey, Mister. Hey!”
The cream-suited man paused, looking my way along with the other well-dressed men. His blue eyes shone at me. I was a kid, yes, but I knew evil when I saw it. I looked at it most days, though what was staring at me in that moment was a different kind of menacing. My young mind couldn’t put a finger on exactly what it was that was different. It just . . . was.
I raised my hand and pointed to the wall. “He has a gun.” When I looked back to the wall, I found the guy pointing his firearm down into the alley, right at the cream-suited man. One shot fired. Just one, and it didn’t come from the man high up above us. Like a sack of shit, the rogue on the wall plummeted and hit the concrete on a deafening thud, and I stared at his mangled form splattered on the ground, his neck twisted on his body, his head at a freaky angle. His eyes were open, and in them I saw a familiar evil. The kind of evil I saw every day.
I didn’t look away until a shadow crept over me. Peeking up, I came face to face with the cream-suited man. He was even bigger close up, even scarier. “What’s your name, kid?” he asked. He had an accent, just like I’d heard when I’d snuck into the movie theatres. American.
“Danny.” I wasn’t one for entertaining strangers, but the man demanded to be answered without even demanding it.
“Who did that to your face?” He nodded to my cheek, sliding his hand into his pocket. I noticed in his other he was still holding the gun.
Reaching up to my cheek, I cupped it, feeling my palm slide across the blood. “It’s nothing. Doesn’t hurt.”
“Big, tough guy, huh?” His thick eyebrows raised, and I shrugged. “But that wasn’t my question.”
“Just some kids.”
His heavy brow crinkled a tad, and the evil shone brighter. “Next time they try to do that to you, kill them. No second chances, kid. Remember that. Don’t hesitate, don’t ask questions. Just do it.”
I glanced across to the car that was decorated in blood, nodding, and Mr. Cream Suit looked down my front, turning his nose up at my filthy form. When his armed hand reached forward and lifted the material of my T-shirt with the end of his gun, I did nothing to stop him. Didn’t flinch, didn’t even move. “They do this too?”
His blue eyes flicked up to meet my stare. “He beats you?” he asked, and I nodded. “Why?”
Truth was, I didn’t know. He hated me. Always had. So I shrugged my skinny shoulders again.
“Left when I was eight.”
He sniffed, stepping back, and I suspected he was piecing my miserable puzzle together. “Next time your stepfather touches you, kill him too.”
I smiled, loving the thought of doing that. I wouldn’t, couldn’t—my stepfather was five times the size of me—but I still nodded anyway. “Yes, Mister.”
I couldn’t be sure, but I thought a smile cracked the corners of his mouth. “Here.” He pulled out a pile of notes that was held neatly together by a shiny money clip, and pulled off a fifty. My eyes bugged. I’d never seen a fifty before. Not even a twenty. “Get something to eat and some clean clothes, kid.”
“Thanks, Mister.” I swiped the note from his hand and held it up in front of me with both hands. I was in awe, and it must have been obvious because the man chuckled lightly as he pulled off another.
I watched in wonder as he reached forward and wiped my cheek. With a fifty-pound note! “You’re dripping everywhere.” He shoved the bloodied note in my hand. “Now, scram.”
I darted off with my two fifties, my eyes set firmly on them as I jogged down the alley, worried that someone would snatch them away from me at any second. Run, Danny, run!
I heard the familiar sound of a knackered Nissan up ahead, and my feet ground to a halt. My stepfather screeched to a stop and jumped out, stalking toward me with the usual murderous look on his face. He didn’t speak first. Never did. The back of his hand collided with my already-injured cheek. I didn’t flinch, not even when I heard my flesh tear some more. “Where the fuck did you get them from?” he spat, swiping the fifties from my hand.
It was completely out of character for me, but I yelled and dived at him, trying to win them back. “Hey, they’re mine! Give them back.”
I didn’t want to fight for them or show him I cared but . . . they were mine. I’d never owned anything. I wasn’t going to spend them, not ever, and if he had them, they’d be gone before the end of the day on drink, drugs, and a hooker. My sight went foggy when he cracked me square on the jaw before grabbing my overgrown hair and dragging me toward his shit heap of a car. “Get in the car, you fucking shit.”
My stepfather swung around, taking me with him. “What?”
The cream-suited man had approached, and the evil I saw in his eyes before was back with a vengeance. “This your stepdad, kid?” he asked, and I nodded as best I could with my head partially restrained. Mr. Cream Suit bobbed his head mildly, turning his attention to my stepfather. “Give the kid his money.”
My stepfather scoffed. “Fuck you.”
Without another word, no second chance or any warning, Mr. Cream Suit raised his gun and put a bullet clean between my stepfather’s eyes. My head got yanked back as he dropped to the ground, tearing out some of my hair from my scalp. Just like that. Bang. No second chances. Dead.
Stepping forward and dipping, Mr. Cream Suit took the fifties from my dead stepfather’s hand and offered them to me. “No second chances,” he said, simple as that. “You got any family?”
I took the notes and shook my head. “No, sir.”
He slowly rose to his full height, his lips twisting. He was thinking. “Two fifties aren’t going to get you very far in life, are they?”
At that moment, I felt like the richest kid in the world. But I knew a hundred quid didn’t go far. “I suppose not, Mister. Wanna gimme some more?” I threw him a cheeky grin, and he returned it.
“Get in the car.”
My eyes widened. “In your car?”
“Yes, in my car. Get in.”
“Because you’re coming home with me.” On that note, he turned and started strolling away, leaving me chasing his heels.
“Do you have anywhere else to go?” He continued walking, passing his gun to one of his men when he reached his shiny Merc.
Lowering to his seat, he left the door open, looking at me standing outside his car. “You didn’t even flinch when he cuffed you.”
I shrugged. “Doesn’t hurt anymore. Besides,” I went on, feeling my scrawny chest puffing out, like this big, imposing stranger might be impressed, “I would never let him see even if it did.”
He smiled. It was a broad smile, and I got the feeling they didn’t happen often. “I don’t give second chances.”
I got straight in the car.
* This story is gritty, dark, violent, edgy, and NOT for the fainthearted. Some scenes may be uncomfortable for some people to read.