Falling falling always falling head first falling arms thrown out air rushing sweat frozen. Then a lurch like a parachute firing, the acceleration slowed, the ground rose up, a prostrate body cradled by the warm, welcoming palm of Mother Earth; her fingers a sunshade, rippling in the wind. I threw up: I went under.
I dreamt I was at sea. The choppy waters churned what little remained of my stomach. The vessel was large, three masts towered over me. I was reclining on black leather, but also aware of being curled towards the backrest. A recurring dream, your eyes are closed, your hands over your face, yet still you see the horror played out before you. A recurring dream, a recurring nightmare. Something cold and wet pressed at my nape. Comfort.
I dreamt voices.
“I’m only saying.”
“Thank you. Now stop it.”
“How’s the boat?”
“I wanted to do right by you.”
The comfort at my nape tensed. “Well gee thanks Andy.” a voice snapped. “thanks for giving me a roof over my head. I think that was the least I was owed after what you did.”
“You abandoned me in fuckin’ Borneo Andy! Nothing but a guitar and the fistful of fuckin’ Ringgits you thrust in my hand. Ringgits you notice, the currency of Malaysia, not Indonesia, where you left me.”
“Good job there was food on the plane, after I exchanged the money it just about covered the price of the ticket.”
“That’s one word for you, yes.” I heard someone groan. I heard a name I recognised and more groaning. I resolved to find this Sam and tell them to keep the noise down. First I needed to get vertical though. With a superhuman effort, I peeled my face from the navel of the world.
Coming too it was worse than I’d feared. We were on the deck of the dream ship, the ALP (although for a moment I struggled to remember what those letters meant). I was lying on black leather the shape of a squat hockey stick. I was covered in sick.
“Sorry about that Kid.” Andy said, scratching his head. I held a tea towel of ice to mine. “Thought you were someone else.” He leant forward in a wooden chair, fisting a Led Zeppelin t-shirt towards me. “Here, wear this for now and I’ll get that cleaned up. Nice shirt you’ve got there, like a bit of Ska myself. That John Bradbury’s got some great drum parts.”
“Andy.” Helen chided from my left. She turned to me. ”Don’t let him fool you into being his mate. Andy’s got enough friends already.”
He snorted: “Never gonna let me forget that are you?”
“No. No I’m not. Speaking of letting things go, what’s this about you selling my comic?”
“I said I was selling an Action Comics, I didn’t say I was selling the one you got me. I wouldn’t do that. I have it framed in the core.”
“The core? Oh, you mean...”
“Right. So, where’s Sarah, Andy?”
“Sarah?” His face didn’t change.
Helen half smiled, half sneered. “Haven’t you learnt by now you can’t bullshit me, Andy?” She tapped her finger at him. “See, it was when Scott told me it’s Sarah the Nicholson’s are after. I’d already figured that. By whatever arrangement that girl’s been making those boys a lot of money recently, it’s obvious they’re want their golden goose back. But no, it was a thought flashed in my mind right as he said it. A thought I’d vocalised not half an hour before.” She turned to me. “You remember what I said when we were back at the police station?”
“Something about there being too many coincidences.”
“Right.” She turned on Andy. “And then another coincidence occurred to me. Your phone call. I don’t hear from you for two years and you just happen to ring two minutes before the parents of a woman you’d shown an interest in in the past turn up to tell me she’s missing. A woman who unless she’s changed drastically in the last few years is just your type. I should know, eh? Dark hair, olive skin. Legs. Not to mention her unique talent for persuasion. She’s your ideal woman Andy, she’s the very thing you weigh anchor and sail in search of.” She grabbed fistfuls of hair. “God, I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. Something’s been bugging me about this all along and I’ve been racking my brains trying to figure what it was and every time I thought I had it sussed the same feeling came back. The phone call, the offer of the phony comic, that’s what it’s been all along.”
“The comic’s real.”
“Really? Never known you to be sort of cash. And you’re not one for clutter, so why the spare copy? No, I ain’t buying it. Had to be a blind. Had to be an excuse to speak to me. And why would you chose that exact time to break silence? Unless you knew Sarah’s parents were on their way to me.”
“And why would I know that?”
“Oh I don’t know, ‘cause you overheard them discussing it as they were leaving the house.” She leaned forward. “Were you there when she did it Andy? Did you try to stop her?” She sat back. “It was you wasn’t it Sarah? You that told Kitson to put his gun in his mouth and pull the trigger?”
“I owed Terry that much.” An ethereal voice.
“You owed him nothing.” Andy said, his eyes leaving Helen for the first time. “Certainly not starting a vendetta out of some misplaced sense of loyalty. Which is what this is now. And no, I didn’t try to stop her. I’m not sure I could if I’d wanted to.”
“No.” the same soft voice said, “Terry was my world, for a time at least, and he could have been a lot meaner to me. Someone had to avenge him, it’s gangland, it’s expected.” There was a sigh and a creek of leather and a pair of legs appeared from a recess behind the ship’s wheel. A hand joined them and they pushed a woman into view. The grainy CCTV footage didn’t do her justice. Olive skin, dark cropped hair. A lime green summer dress stopped just above her knees. I had a hard job not to stare at her legs, they were so perfectly formed.
Helen was far from impressed. “I always knew you were dangerous Sarah, but lethal?”
“Well I guess I also needed to blow off a little steam. See, I was a bit pissed, what with being kept prisoner these last few months.” Her low heels clacked as she paced the deck.
Helen nodded, sympathetically. “Tell me about it.”
Sarah turned and laughed. “Ha! Babes, you’re so much better at this than you give yourself credit for.”
Sarah leaned against the rigging, one arm raised, and stared out across the Mersey. She was distant. “I guess I’m like a lot of people really. I want what I haven’t got. Which is a problem. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always got exactly what I wanted. I remember being twelve and wanting a pony. So we went to the stables and half a hour later the guy was giving me one for nothing. Said he couldn’t possibly charge such a charming little girl. His exact words. I was bored of the pony in five minutes. Even at that age it was all too easy.”
She turned, a hand grasping the air before her face. “It’s all in the smile see. A slight tilt of the head and a gentle flicker of the eyelids. An imperceptible shake of the head as you ask, ‘You wouldn’t mind getting me a drink would you?’ Or a nod as you say, ‘Now you’re happy for me to put this in the bag, aren’t you?’, as if it’s the most innocuous thing in the world. I’m a genius at it, few people can resist. Two, at last count.” She stared at Helen. “Terry was the other one.”
Helen lowered her head and smiled. Sarah crossed her arms over her chest and stared back out over the river. “Funny, a thug like Terry approaches you in a bar and you have no interest in him at all until he fails to follow your command to fuck off. He could resist me, which made him irresistible.”
“Your kryptonite.” Andy said, returning from below decks.
Sarah smiled. “Yes. I was completely in his power. And he knew it. Wasn’t stupid either, most people are happy to explain away my gifts and just reap the benefits. Not Terry. He soon recognised what I could do and how to use it to his advantage. Sold me as a business proposition to his bosses, split three ways. They tried locking me up in their warehouse at first, but I soon talked my way out of that one. Was only bad timing that did for me. Terry came back unexpectedly and I got caught.”
Helen nodded “He was your jailor.”
“Yes. The Nicholsons saw how dangerous I was, they were terrified of me. Terry kept me up in Garston. I was told if I didn’t go along with what they wanted they’d kill my parents. What was I supposed to do? Even if I could escape, I knew they’d be killed before I could warn anyone. So I went along with it. As slavery goes, it wasn’t so bad. Was even a thrill for a while, until it was so easy I was as bored with it as everything else.”
“You had some control over him though Babes. I went to the house. He gave you the master bedroom.”
Sarah missed the humour. “Was the only room with a strong enough door. He used to pump opium smoke through the vent at night. Christ knows why, he could have just doped me up. Had some crazy, fucked up dreams I can tell you.”
“So how did Andy find you?”
“Actually, yes.” Sarah said, “How did you find me?”
He smiled a wry smile. “A good sailor knows how to follow a scent on the air.”
“Are you being rude?” Helen enquired.
“For once, no.” He heaved a heavy sigh. “Remember when you told me about Sarah? We were at that awful sushi bar in Okinowa. I was wearing my Tweed jacket.”
“I hate that jacket.”
“I know, you told me and I put it away and didn’t wear it again while you were on board. But a few weeks ago I was in a hypermarket in Cadiz, go to get my wallet out and pull out the receipt from Okinowa. I’d written Sarah’s name on the back. Well, I was bored and hadn’t been to England in five years and thought, what the hell, time to spin the wheel. I was barely out of the estuary when I got the first sense of her. Sometimes all it takes is a name to hone in. I found the house and staked it out ‘til I could figure what craic was.”
“Terry rarely let me leave, except on jobs, but we were laying low after all the heat the London trip had generated. I hadn’t been out in a fortnight.”
“Except to the supermarket.” Andy said.
“Exactly. I never thought lactose intolerance would have had an upside. Terry tried to find the right milk, but he always fucked it up, was just easier to take me to Asda every week to get what I needed. Still wouldn’t let me out of his sight though.”
“So I contrived to bump into her. Literally.”
“Crashed into more like. I’ve got a massive bruise on my shoulder.”
“Had to look real though. In the confusion I slipped a phone into her pocket.”
“I didn’t even notice it until it starting vibrating at two in the morning. Didn’t know what it was at first, I was so out of it. But I knew that someone was coming for me and I dreamt a hero on a bright white steed coming crashing through the wall to rescue me.”
“You would be that flash.” Helen agreed. Andy smiled back at her.
“Terry was jumpy all next morning, he’d been like that for days, but was worse than ever, so I went to the toilet to text my mystery man that something was up. I only had to wait twenty minutes for Andy to come crashing in.”
“Yes.” Helen said. “It was only as I was driving down here that I remembered what my mate at the Royal had said about the bruising to Lennox’s arm and his broken nose and figured it with your fighting style. Came at you with a knife I’m guessing?”
“So, you batted it away, elbowed him in the nose and levered his arm until he dropped the bottle. And a roundhouse to finish?”
“Spinning kick actually.”
“Like I said, flash. So when did you come back for your clothes?”
They looked at each other and laughed. “Friday morning. Sarah walked up to the officers watching the house and convinced them to help her load her stuff up.”
“Really? I spoke to the police, they didn’t mention it.”
“Oh they don’t remember.” Sarah said. “I made sure of that.”
“And what about Kitson? Quick, you know they’re on their way.”
“She’s right.” Andy agreed. “They will be coming.”
“You think?” Sarah asked.
“I would think so. After last night they must have someone watching the barge. Someone will have been followed.”
“Kitson?” Helen said, impatiently.
“As soon as Andy came for me I told him about my parents and we staked out their house all night and into the morning. I spotted Kitson first thing, leant behind a tree. Andy watched him while I slipped out of the car and came up behind him. As I was slipping down an alleyway it occurred to me, my parents were never going to be safe now, I needed to send the Nicholsons a clear message. It was so easy, I was barely aware I was doing it. I walked behind him, ran a fingernail across his back and gave him the instruction. After a dozen steps I heard his gun go off.”
“Did he really have to die?”
Sarah flashed with rage, “Hey, I didn’t start this you know, they started it and I won’t let them threaten mum and dad. So long as they remember what I’m capable of, they’ll be safe.”
We were all quiet a moment. “And you heard your parents talking about coming to me when they came out of the house, yeah?”
“We came to the ship after Kitson killed himself and Andy returned to see what was going on. He heard my parents talking.”
“I rang you from the car.”
“And offered a phoney mag.”
“I told you, it’s real.”
“So you’ve got two?”
“Yes, I have to have one to read don’t I?”
“Childishness not sentimentality. Got it.” She winked at me. Helen made to speak again, but was cut short by the sound of screeching tires. Three of us made to move, but Andy stopped us with a raised hand. He retrieved an item from behind the wheel and crept starboard. He scanned the scene below through a spyglass.
“Oh jeez, when did he start using a telescope?” Sarah shrugged her shoulders.
“When did you start using a telescope?”
“It’s a spyglass. “ Andy said, thoughtfully.
“Ok, when did you start using a spyglass?”
“Quiet time Helen.” Andy commanded, returning to port. “They’re here. Sarah I want you below, no arguments.”
Sarah nodded and did as Andy commanded. His brow tightened.
“I know that look.” Helen said. “What’s up.” He whispered something in her ear. “Shit.”
“Exactly.” Andy handed out the weapons and we staked out the docks below. We waited.
“You were there last night weren’t you.” Helen said to Andy. “At my boat.”
“What makes you say that?”
“You knew about the visit from the Nicholson goons. I didn’t mention it.” He grinned that grin. “That’s why Toby didn’t bark, he was with you.”
“I came to check up on you, stopped to play with Toby and saw those two goons arrive. Decided to stick around and make sure things went ok.”
“But you didn’t feel the need to step in?”
“Sure, I knew you’d be fine, you’re Helen Marr. Anyway, I didn’t give you a home without leaving you the means to defend it. The suit worked ok, yeah?”
“It worked fine.”
As this was going on, a Merc had arrived. It joined two cars that were already parked at the edge of the dock. Figures emerged, scanned the scene and half a dozen men marched toward the boat. Four waited behind. Others remained in the cars.
Included in the boarding party were our visitors from last night. Helen pointed out Brett and Kurt to me. The brothers were well dressed against a sea of aertex, their golden locks blowing on the Mersey air. Helen and me were ducked behind a gunwale. Andy stood defiantly on top like some kind of Errol Flynn figure. Brett shouted up at him:
“We want the girl.”
“She’s not mine to give you.”
“Look ya thick fucking Mick,” Kurt shouted, “bring us the girl or you’re all dead. Clear?” One of my playmates surreptitiously aimed a weapon at Andy. A well aimed throwing star sailed through the air with a flick of the wrist. Scally #2 cradled his punctured hand. Brett and Kurt exchanged looks. “Fine.” Brett shouted, holding his hands up. “If that’s the way he wants to play it.” He gave a signal to the men at the cars. A two fingered whistle from Kurt reinforced the message.
Helen considered the cutlasses we’d been given. “Jesus Andy, would it really hurt you to carry some real weapons?”
“You know how I feel about guns.”
“Yeah, yeah, the bigger the coward, the bigger the gun, I remember. Doesn’t really help us now though does it.”
Two men went to the back of one car and removed two people. It took me a moment to register who they were. Then it clicked. Sarah’s parents. Her father was bullish, but quiet. Mrs O’Connor was terrified. They were brought down to the quayside, forced to their knees and guns aimed at their heads. “Now try that motherfucker.” Kurt screamed at Andy.
“The girl.” His brother ordered firmly.
Andy shrugged. “Your funeral.” he said, jumping down. He crossed the deck, hands covering his ears. Sarah reappeared, armed with a megaphone.
“Brilliant.” Helen said. “Just what we need.”
I was rooted to the spot. Helen was unaffected. “Babes.” she warned Sarah, “Be very careful now.”
“Sarah says everybody with a gun, stick it in your mouth.” The feedback knocked me sick.
“Sarah.” Helen commanded, more firmly. “Listen to me. Think about what you’re doing.” A hand was placed on my shoulder and I felt the sensation return to my body. Gingerly, I stood up and marvelled at the scene below. It could have been on freeze frame if not for the very noticeable trembling of the four men with weapons in their mouths.
“Sarah, you’d be commanded by Terry, now be commanded by me. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can use this to our advantage, find a solution we can live with.”
“I won’t let them kill my parents.” Tears streamed down her face.
“There’s little chance of that is there?” She advanced a pace, hands raised. “You have the power here, but if you do this, I can’t help you. I won’t help you.”
“Helen’s right.” Andy agreed, his words slightly slurred.
“I have an idea how we can save your parents and avenge Terry properly.” She reached out to Sarah. One hand pressed against the megaphone, the other took Sarah by the shoulder. Helen pulled her close ad she whispered something in her ear. Sarah pulled away and gave Helen a curious look. Helen winked and smiled. Sarah nodded and returned her grin. “I love it.” she said. She raised the megaphone and span ‘round.
“Ok, Sarah says any and all associates of the Nicholson clan, stay as you are. Brett and Kurt, bring my parents on board. No funny business. Remember I’ve got four gunmen at my disposal. Move.”
The Nicholson boys shuffled ahead to the prostrate figures on their knees. Like the trembling gunmen it was like their brains didn’t want to cooperate but their bodies felt compelled to obey. O’Connor batted away Kurt’s attempt to help him to his feet, rushing to his wife’s aid and walked on ahead of the zombiefied brothers.
It suddenly occurred to me that we were four or five stories above the quayside, a series of zigzagging gangways ran half the length of the ship coming up to the forecastle. Sarah greeted her parents by falling into their arms. Even dad had tears in his eyes. The Nicholsons took slightly longer to arrive. In the meantime Sarah had regained her composure.
“Give me your phones.” They looked at each other. “Phones, now, I haven’t got all day.” They obeyed. Kurt made to speak, but was silenced by a raised hand. It was Andy’s, slapping him.
Sarah went through the address books. She laughed. “Ah, how sweet, Ma.” She looked up at them. “See, now I know my folks are safe.” She made the noise of old fashioned phone ringing. “Hi, is that Ma Nicholson? Hello Dearie, listen be a love and throw yourself in front of the 5.18 to Manchester, yeah.”
“You think you can threaten us? You don’t threaten us. Nobody threatens us.” Andy hit him again, it was getting to be a habit. Helen rolled her eyes.
“You can’t win you know.” the pathologically calm Brett said. “We’ll get our mother a new number, send her where you can’t find here.”
“Oh I’m sorry, would you like me to call her now?” Sarah asked, holding the phone to her ear. Panic flashed in his eyes. She lowered it. “Anyway, my associate here is even more powerful than me. He found me just by knowing my name. What ya say Andy, is Ma enough information for you.”
“It’s not the name that’s important.” he said philosophically. “It’s the psychological connection that’s made.” He thought for a moment. “Linda Eustace Nicholson, born February 28th 1956. Loves Elvis, banana dacharies and Michael Bolton.” They stood askance. Andy shrugged. “I could find her if she was halfway up the Amazon.”
Sarah seemed satisfied with this. “Gentlemen, the price of your mother’s life is my parent’s total safety, clear?” They nodded silent assent. “Good. They so much as get cut up in traffic and Ma will be receiving a call. You’re also to hand yourselves in to the police and give a full confession to ordering Terry’s murder.”
Brett made to object. Sarah merely raised the phone to her ear. “Good afternoon, I was wondering if I could speak to a Mrs Linda Nicholson. Oh you are Mrs Nicholson, well I’m sorry to disturb you on a Sunday and I won’t take up much of valuable time, I just wondered if you will do me a favour.” Noises of pleading assent spewed from the Nicholsons. Sarah apologised and rang off.
“We have a deal then. Good, ‘cause I’ll be checking the Post and the Echo websites tomorrow morning. I don’t see your names in large type, Ma catches a train in the face.” Her head dropped.
Andy stepped forward. “I’d say it was time you boys got off my ship.” They scurried off like schoolboys sent from the Head Master’s study. Car engines fired up soon after and that was the last we saw of them.
Sarah nodded her head emphatically, looked up at Andy and Helen with a look of relief. Then she returned to her parents’ arms, fetching drinks out of the recess and filling them in on her story.
“So I guess you two will heading off to sea.” Helen asked Andy.
“Definitely.” he replied. “Sarah has phenomenal power, but she hasn’t learnt to control it yet. I can teach her focus.”
“Yes, I suppose you do have your uses.”
“Of Sarah? No, not at all. She’ll be good for you Andy, she’ll do what I could never do and keep you honest. Do you want us to run her parents home?”
“Oh no Andy.” Sarah interrupted “I haven’t seen mum and dad in such a long time, I want to spend some time with them before I go running off again. Let them stay on board for a few days Andy. You seem to have the room.”
He nodded and agreed. Helen laughed. “I never thought I’d live to see the day when Andy Howth was pussy whipped.” He didn’t seem to see the funny side.
Get it done.