Chapter 14 – On A Rope
Sister Pain signed a deal with Deconstruction after the summer of switcheroos. A stint for me as a small time underworld stooge saw Mr Knickerbocker pay our rent every time I would hide a load from the back of Dan’s van in the basement of our house. Penny thought we were holding on to Mountain Of Light’s live gear because their lock up had been turned over. That had in partial truth been the case. However, the lock up was not targeted by by thieves or criminals. Mountain of Light’s lock up was raided by Customs And Excise on two occasions in 1996. Both times it was found to be empty. Both times our basement was full. Both times Penny was completely unaware anything was amiss. I wouldn’t say it was easy money. It made me constantly anxious. There was one time Dan and I had to drive around all night because we dare not stop moving for fear of being found out. There were police cars at all of Mr Knickerbocker’s lock ups and what looked like plain clothes units outside Cemetery Road most of the night.
There was an occasion a few weeks back where I helped him switch number plates in a warehouse to avoid detection because Dan was going to the same customs house twice in six hours. It was on that day that I had to stop lying to myself. I had to admit I no longer had a convincing ‘I’m an innocent bystander, officer’ defense. I was an accomplice. I didn’t want to be and yet I repeatedly was.
Penny was concentrating on Sister Pain and the demo recordings with the rest of her band most days. They sounded incredible, accomplished, dexterous. The music was muscular and feminine. Most importantly of all it was catchy as all hell. This band were destined for the big time. I on the other hand had got caught in a small time criminal rut. I didn’t want to lie to Penny. I didn’t want her to be involved in whatever it was Dan The Van and I had got into. I thought I had clung to my plausible deniability because I never asked what was in the cases. I had Mr Knickerbockers words ringing in my ears every time I thought about it. Bits and pieces. Bits. And Pieces. So the dirty money payed to clean up the house. It payed to fix the wiring and it payed to get Penny up and down the country to meetings in London. It kitted her out with new pedals. It got her a nice genuine Les Paul and of course we got a great deal on an amp. I know I sound like I’m repeating myself here. It’s important you understand. Penny never did anything wrong. She just sang songs, played guitar and dreamed of being a rock star.
I’d been sweating on the load currently in the basement for the last few days when Penny told me she’d got to go into the studio for 3 days. The label had selected a single to preface the album. Now they needed to put down some B-Sides. The girls were toying with a couple of cover versions. Myles and Penny had some half formed tracks left over from the album sessions that could be knocked into shape and recorded in a couple of days. I loved every detail of what she was telling me. My girlfriend was off to record B-Sides for the lead single to her bands debut album. Amazing. I was also pleased she wouldn’t see the crates going out tonight as she’d be in a booth doing vocals. We told each other how much we loved one another. Then she headed out the door with an overnight bag and a new outfit on. I’d never seen her wearing the skirt and bat print stockings she had on under her signature leather jacket. She looked like she was already famous. Then again, she always had. Less than an hour later Dan pulled up in the Sherpa. He let himself in and headed straight upstairs to the bathroom. As he climbed the flight I heard him call down “I’m going to need your help at the other end. Just got to drop the kids off at the pool. I can swing by The Head when we’re done.” I yelled up after him “Don’t stink it out up there. Penny nearly lost her voice last time she went in after you”.
Minutes later Dan bounced back into the room shadow boxing. “You fit?” I opened the cellar door and headed down the steps silently. These cases were dropped off by The two Dan’s four nights ago. Three of us had broken a sweat to get them down the steps. Now there were only two of us it was going to be a struggle. We had to get them back up and out quickly. They weighed an absolute elephant each. It was a two man lift getting them out into the front room. As I sweated pure booze lifting them out I became aware quite how out of shape I had started to feel recently. I was drinking every night, Not just at work. When I got in after I was sitting up if Penny was sleeping. Usually watching for blue lights out the windows while I nursed a beer, or a rum or both. It took a while but all five flight cases were up out of the cellar. Now only a broken ironing board and some of Penny’s old boots were left in the cellar. “Fucking hell Dan. What is in these? They’re not normally this heavy.” Dan looked my way while catching his own breath “You know what’s in them normally?” I shook my head “Actually no, I don’t” he nodded “Then I get the impression we really don’t want to know when they’re heavier now do we?” I knew he was right. What was this though? The Italian Job?
Ten minutes later we’re both in the van heading off away from the city center. “What’s the new blokes name at the pub?” Dan The Van inquired. “You’ll love this. He’s another Steve. Steve Stevens. Dan The Man has taken to calling him Double Steve!” Dan The Van laughed “That’s genius. He’s a funny cunt that Dan The Man. Double Steve! Love it.” I swallow hard and decide to confront Dan The Van on our way to the drop. “Dan. This is my last run. I can’t keep doing this.” Dan The Van stops laughing and looks straight ahead. “It’s doing me in. Penny doesn’t know, still. Incredibly. I’m lying to her by not telling her what we’re up to. If this went wrong she could get in trouble and she knows nothing about it. It’s not right. I can’t sleep because of it. I’m all fucked up all the time just to get it out of my head. This is it. We’ve got away with it for 9 months but sooner or later it’ll go Pete Tong. I’m not part of this.” Dan was nodding to everything I was saying. He looked directly at me taking his eyes of the road. “Is that what you’re going to tell Mr Knickerbocker?” Dan held the stare. I was worried about his road safety. “Something like that yeah” Dan kept looking my way. I reached for the wheel. He turned back to the road to find we’d drifted across both lanes and into the rumble strips. “Something like that… It better be nothing like that Steve. If you want to change an arrangement with Mr Knickerbocker you need the stars to align. You can’t go talking about long odds and butterflies in your tummy.” We spent the next few moments in an uncomfortable almost silence. Dan pointed at the tape deck “Got anything for that?” I dug through his van’s cassette box. He had Morrison Hotel, Strange Days, Waiting For The Sun. “Christ Dan, you’ve got more Doors than the Hilton in here.” I remembered I had a cassette of Rocket From The Crypt’s Scream! Dracula! Scream! album in my denim jacket pocket. Twirling the looseness off the cogs with my little finger so the tape was tight I pushed it into the player. Speedo & ND’s riffing guitars were right on cue for On A Rope as we sped along the road. Dan let out a solitary “Nice” as we approached the slip road. We could both see the warehouses from our elevated position on their squalid little industrial estate.
Dan pulled in to an empty loading dock and I looked up and down the road for signs of life. There was nothing to be seen. There were a dozen steps up to the side of a shutter door. There was also no forklift to get the cargo up there. I could see why Dan needed my help. He shot up the steps and unlocked a padlock with a key from his pocket. Dan lifted the shutter about four feet before he dropped down on to the ground to join the lift of these five dead weights from the Sherpa. It was a strain even for the two of us to get one case up onto our shoulders. Tentatively we waddled towards the opening trying not to buckle under the weight. I kept envisioning the crate being dropped. I foresaw it cracking open and all matter of undeniable evil spilling out. Were we lifting drugs? Money? Drug money? Corpses? Horses heads? Sleepy fishes? That must be it. These were travelling aquariums. That’s why they weighed so fucking much. Once the fifth one was inside I set about shutting the van. Dan went inside the lock up and called down to me. “I need your help in here. We’ve got to move them to the back wall.” I headed up the steps then looked all around before half ducking under the shutter. I didn’t see anyone. I went on inside. A relatively innocent man.
Inside there wasn’t a great deal to see. A large loading bay with only a smattering of orange and blue racks. Some cardboard boxes. Some pallets. There was a gantry crane in the middle of the space with a large metal hook on it. The beam it ran along headed out over the bay. We could have winched them in. Dan flicked on some low level emergency lighting and we took hold of either side of the first flight case. Dan motioned for it to go under the racking and we huffed and puffed our way across the room. I set it down with an audible ‘ahh’. Dan looked over at the state of me. “You need to get to the gym Stevie. You’re in bad shape.” I nodded. He was right. I could taste the alcohol in the sweat on my lips just by poking my tongue out. Dan repeated the sentiments but this time he was doing his best Michael Cain in Get Carter impression. “You’re a big Man Steve, but you’re in bad shape. For me it’s a full time job. Now be’ave yourself”. We grabbed the second case. I swear the fucker walked faster than last time. The strain of keeping up was making me angry. You know that ‘get shit done’ fury that can take over when the adrenaline kicks in? It peeped up into my field of vision. It coursed through my veins for a half minute. We slung the second case on top of the first. I made a louder ‘Rahh’ noise. Dan nodded. “That’s it Stevie Boy. Dig deep.”
“You sound like my PE Teacher.” This was a thinly veiled insult. My PE Teacher was a dickhead. Dan laughed as we headed back for crate three. “No stacking this time. Next to the first one.” I took a gulp of air “OK.” Dan role played the PE Teacher again “Come on Lads, It’s only pain,” We picked the crate up and dashed across the bay to the back wall. My legs wobbling as we went. The flight case was plopped against the back wall with some momentum. We rushed it into position then let it go four or five inches from the ground. “Yes Yes Yes!” Dan hollered. We shot back for case number four. I felt the sweat pouring from every part of my skin. I was soaking wet. This was hard fucking work. Harder than it should be. Dan was puffing his cheeks slightly but next to me he looked like he was just getting warmed up. I put my hand on the handle of crate four as I steadied myself. Dan’s demeanor changed. “You OK Steve? You got this?” I nodded. We went again. Half way across the room I called out “Down down down” The flight case skidded to a stop in the middle of the room. I flopped on top of it. “I’m fucked. Give me a second.” Dan looked down at me. He shook his head. “How tall are you Steve?”. I groaned “You know how tall I am.” He smirked. “Six feet five inches? I didn’t know they could stack shit that high.” I laughed. I was being quite pathetic. He knew it. I knew it. This was a manual task and I was a giant of a man. Let’s just get this done. I wiped the sweat from my brow with my sleeve and stood up. “OK you fucker. Let’s do this.” We lifted the crate firmly and marched it over to the gap in the racking on top of crate three.
Dan put his arm up for a high five. I swiped at it and missed. As we both turned to the shutter doors to face the final crate I was taken aback to see someone stood there. In silhouette. I recognised him instantly. Dan didn’t. Arthur Loafer stepped out of the shadows and I could see his face in the dim light looking every inch the fuck piece he looked on that day. “Hello faggots. What are we up to here then?” Dan hadn’t seen me frozen to the spot. “Who the hell are you?” He made a bold arm gesture as he asked his question. “You don’t need to know about me” replied Arthur reaching into his jacket and pulling out a long screwdriver. Dan eyed the tool in his hand “Handy Andy is it?” Arthur took a step forward. He reached out to case five. “Anything I might fancy in these big old boxes Gay Boys? You let me help myself. I might just let you go out of here unharmed.” I couldn’t stay in a fear induced paralysis indefinitely. Right now though, time seemed to be standing still. My heart disagreed. That was racing back and fourth from the last time we met to right now like a flux capacitor. Arthur could see the cases were combination locked shut. He figured that made the contents valuable. Who the hell was he? Really? Another gangster? A rival? Just a thief who thinks he’s got lucky? Was that it? Or was this pot bellied, loafer wearing, football t-shirt and baseball capped Con Man my own arch enemy? How am I in a situation like this? I’m a fucking bartender. “Give me the keys and I won’t shank you. How’s that sound?” Arthur had a look of greedy delight on his moronic mug. I could see Dan’s knee bouncing like he was about to go off on one. “You don’t want to know what’s in these cases believe me Chap.” Arthur didn’t strike me as the kind of guy to heed a warning as a warning.
He pushed on the case with his foot and it didn’t move. I could feel the rage rising in me while he toadied around in front of us both. “I’m not asking twice. You give me the keys or I stick this in your neck and take them anyway.” Dan did the sort of nod that I’ve seen boxers do before they start a flurry of hits. I put my arm out to stop him. “Do you remember me?” The words came out of my mouth like an out of body experience. I had no knowledge of the fact I was about to say them. Arthur peered my way and shook his head. “I don’t know you Cunt.” I was annoyed by that. “I know you. Arthur.” He blinked and looked again. “Nope” I cleared my throat and stepped in front of Dan. I was now between him and the large metal hook hanging on it’s chain a meter or two to my left. “The Queens Head. 1994. Ringing any bells?” Arthur swapped hands with the screwdriver so it was on my side. He shook his head again “I said! I don’t know you, CUNT” I could almost hear the penny drop between Dan’s ears behind me. “Arthur Loafer.” He didn’t like me saying his full name. “My mate wants you to turn around and fuck right off… I don’t. I want you to try something and see how it goes.” I may have just been discussing how out of shape I was only a minute ago but I was sure I had this. “You must remember me Arthur. Pub toilets? Middle of the afternoon?” Arthur knew. I knew he knew. I relished the next sentence “Don’t play dumb with me.”
It was clear to the three of us that I wasn’t going to back down so Arthur decided to make the first move. He raised the screwdriver like a bayonet and lunged toward me. I’d anticipated his move. I swung my arm around to grab the metal hook on the chain just to my side. As Arthur reached me I hit the side of his head with a cold steel block the size of a microwave oven swinging on twelve feet of chain. It wiped him out in one wrecking ball arc. His body was lifted off of the ground and flung fifteen feet across the room. His limp ‘penny for the guy’ form slid up against crate five nudging it along about three inches. Dan was stood open mouthed like a statue that should be pissing into a fountain. I caught the hook on it’s third swing past. I held it still. Dan hadn’t budged since the impact. His pose cracked with a shrill “What did you do?” I smiled. I don’t know why. I was far from happy. I may have just ruined my life. I laughed. Again this wasn’t a happy thing. This was the only noise I could make that wouldn’t result in me throwing up. “Ummm.” Dan leaped into action. “What was that?” I felt like I was going to faint. ‘The old hook n’ reel’ did not feel like a suitable answer. Dan held me by both arms. To be sure he made eye contact he shoved his face directly in front of mine. “We just got into the deepest shit. We need to act very quickly.” I came to my senses of a sort. “First things first. We need to move that last case.” Dan gasped. He had a whole internal battle about whether that was absurd or not then joined me in the end of the last task. We stepped over Arthur’s crash tested dummy like form. We picked up case five. It may as well have been light as a feather. We carried it over. Placed it down carefully next to the other four. There was no getting around it. The job we had come to do was now complete. Only the complication remained to be dealt with.
I stood over the body first. I was weighing up if Arthur was bleeding. Did we have a mess to deal with? I was trying to think like I was in a cop show but in truth my internal monologue was drowned out by my frontal lobes screaming ‘FUCK-FUCK-FUCK-FUCK-FUCK’ like a potty mouthed locomotive. Dan The Van joined me over the limp sack of shit. I suddenly had a vision of Arthur waking up and shanking us both. He didn’t. He just laid there like roadkill. “Is he dead?” Dan asked me in a hesitant manner. “I’m not a doctor. That lump of metal is a bit overkill as a reflex hammer though. I mean. He was alive a couple of minutes ago.” Dan sucked on his teeth. “It’s hard isn’t it? Quipping like Bruce Willis when you’ve just iced a motherfucker.” I took the criticism on board. “It is. What should we do with him?” Neither of us had a clue. “Put him in the van?” I suggested. “Fuck Off!” retorted Dan. “Well we can’t leave him here. In Mr Knickerbocker’s lock up.” Dan weighed it up. “If he leaks f-f-forensics all over my van I’ll be a suspect.” I looked around us. “How did he get here?” Dan stuck his head out through the gap in the shutters. “He’s got his own car. It’s out here. We should get him back in that.” I was spinning scenarios in my head. How do we Weekend At Bernie’s this prick into his car? How do we then get him away from us? How do we do those things without putting evidence all over everything that leads back to us? That lead to the shady gangster we’re fearfully employed by? How do I get to go home to my beautiful girlfriend and stay out of jail?
Dan slid down out of the bay as I dragged Arthur to the opening. I lowered the body down into Dan’s arms. As soon as he was supporting the full weight I hopped down to take Arthur by the feet. I looked back at the concrete where he’d laid since he landed. No blood. No piss. Not so much as a puddle of drool. Tidy. As we waddled the lifeless body over tarmac and rubble to his nearby parked Vauxhall Cavalier Dan pieced the plan together. “We’ll pop him in the back seat. You drive his car. I’ll follow on in the van and I’ll meet you at Uncle Vernon’s place. He’ll know what to do?”
“You want to get other people involved in this? That is not a good idea. If you tell Uncle Vernon he’ll tell Mr Knickerbocker. Then he’ll really own us. Forever. We will never be out from his grasp.” Dan screwed his brain up and tried to come up with a plan B. “OK What do we know? We know Knickerbocker knows Arthur. We know he knows that you and Arthur have previous. He doesn’t like Arthur. They’ve crossed each other before.” I struggled for a second “Arthur is a gangster?” Dan opened the cars back door. “No. Arthur is a thief. A Shitty one too. He’s done time twice. I tried to tell you about him going down a while back but you didn’t want to know. Well, he’s not long been out. Turns out prison got him strung out. He’s been doing smash and grabs all over for weeks. He accidentally hit someone close to Vernon a few days ago. Cleaned them out and that got Mr Knickerbocker pissed off.” I lit up “So we’ve done him a favour?” Dan stopped in his tracks. “He doesn’t go around whacking Tea Leaves and smoking Fools Steve. He shifts gear from the airport. Speakers, electronics, Sega mega-drives. He’s more Del-Boy than Scarface.” I wasn’t convinced “What’s all that bits and pieces stuff?” Dan continued trying to play down Mr Knickerbockers credentials “Purely recreational. He was extending you a kindness. Or trying to.” We had slid Arthur into the car across the back seats “Why is everyone so scared of him if he’s not a drug dealer?”
Dan paused for a moment. “He’s still a criminal Steve. He’s still fakkin’ massive. There’s still the fact he can fight like The Incredible Hulk when the shit hits the fan.” I took his points on board. “So if we’re not taking him to Uncle Vernon what are we doing?” Dan pushed the hot potato of the moment my way. As he did Arthur let out a moan. A low deeply unconscious noise, but definitely a sign of life. Sparks went off in my mind. He was still alive. I was not a murderer. This was fabulous news. The body wriggled slightly. Dan saw it too. We grinned at each other. Saved. Well, not quite saved. Only now we had a different situation to deal with. Now we could take it to the Gangsters.
“OK. Hybrid plan. We are taking him to Vernon. We’re just not telling him that we nearly delivered him a corpse.” We shut the doors on the Vauxhall and I walked back to the van with Dan explaining the germ of a plan that was forming in my head. “Knickerbocker and Vernon are looking for this piece of shit right? If they were to get a hot tip off I’m sure their beef with him would entail more than a single smack across the chops. I’ve got no love for this prick. I don’t care if they fuck him up. He did the same to me.” Dan took a large black mobile phone out of the van’s glove compartment. I’d never made a mobile phone call in my life. I had no idea Dan had one either. He was putting the phone together as we spoke. Microchip card, then the battery, then a back cover. “Hey! Ray Parker Jr. Who you gonna Call?” He dialed a number from memory and turned his back on me. “It’s me. I’m at the lock up. It’s all in.” It must be Vernon on the line “Look. We’ve run into someone you want a word with… Arthur Loafer. Yep. Here with us… Now… Nope. Steve did. Out like a light.”
I felt the floor open below me. Dan had just tipped it all up in the air. He’d thrown me under the bus and dobbed me in to whoever was on the end of the line. To Uncle Vernon, to Mr Knickerbocker? To someone. All the plotting and panic of the last few minutes and now I was well and truly named and shamed. He wasn’t dead though. I hadn’t killed him. Just smacked him really hard on the head. “Ten minutes? OK We’ll sit on it. See you soon.” Dan hung the phone up and flipped it back over to remove the battery. “Honesty is the best policy Steve The Wise.” I felt betrayed. “Dan what did you just do?” Dan put the phone battery back in the glove compartment. He’d pulled a card with a microchip in the center out of the back of the phone. “Trust me. This is what you wanted. Your stars just aligned.” Dan tucked the card from the phone into his wallet and put the handset in the door compartment of the Sherpa. “When Knickerbocker and Vernon get here we will tell them exactly what happened. The complete truth. Including the conversation on the way here about you wanting out.” I could tell Dan thought he was being very clever but I wasn’t seeing the full picture just yet “And what will Mr Knickerbocker make of that?” Dan grinned. “You’re delivering him the thief who just robbed his business. The guy who kicked off in Sarah’s pub and the bloke who just tried to steal whatever in is those five heavy fucking boxes you have been sitting on for the best part of a week. I think he’ll give you what you want.” I smirked an unsure smile. This might just have been worth the hassle after all.
At that moment Arthur Loafer tried to start his car behind us and we had to scramble across the tarmac to restrain him until the heavy mob arrived. Dan flung open the driver door and pulled Loafer out. Arthur swung at Dan in a big clumsy lunge. Dan sidestepped it. He easily tripped his assailant up with an outstretched leg. Arthur went down like a sack of potatoes. He tried to get back up. Dan whipped his arms away with the same leg. “Stay down Dipshit.” Arthur ignored the warning. He tried again to get up. I stood one foot on his chest. “You are so crap with warnings Arty.” He struggled against my foot. “Want to take another nap? Give it up.”
It seemed like a lifetime before Mr Knickerbocker’s Mercedes pulled up outside the lock up. We’d put Arthur back in the dirt countless times in the ten minutes since the phone call. My emotions were all over the place. I was scared, angry, regretful, nauseous over and over again. As the black luxury vehicle pulled in I could see he was not alone. Behind Knickerbocker’s flash ride was The Electric Fairy’s old Volvo. Somehow Sarah had been dragged into this. My heart sank.