The Terrible Truth About Robins and Ravens
Prologue - Kidneys
Streatham Boxing Club, South London
One Year Ago
Napalm revved his Audi, wiped his hands on his jeans and glanced at the small pretty pink box on the passenger seat. He swore. The lights changed. ‘Come on.’ He banged the steering wheel, overtook the Mini in front, before it moved, and raced across the junction at Tooting towards Streatham, thumping through the gears and leaning forward as if to give himself momentum. Half way up Streatham High Street, he skidded to a halt, dumped the car on a yellow, chucked the package into his gym bag and ran straight into the club.
Nirvana Breed boomed from the central speakers energising members of the club to punch bags harder. He turned at a voice from the ring.
‘Yo, Napalm, you ready for a pasting?’ Diggs was in the ring, bouncing on his tip toes and punching the air in time to Nirvana’s aggressive beat.
Napalm intended to spar with Diggs, but was too wound up for that, so he ignored the question and shouted, ‘Get Malone and Stiffy.’
Diggs’s complaints about being all ready for a match were lost as Napalm added ‘Now!’ before disappearing into the changing room, so Diggs jumped out of the ring waved at Malone who was in the office and followed.
Napalm paced in front of a row of hangers mounted over a wooden slatted bench. The place stank of sweat and bleach and muffled music came from the gym. A few towels hung around, some lads readied for a workout. Napalm said, ‘Give us the room.’ They left, as Diggs came in, all kitted up, his hands wrapped ready for gloves, his chiselled torso rippling with energy and sweating from his warm up, his red boxer shorts glistening in the lights. Napalm was big at six-two. Diggs towered over him at six-six. Even so, Napalm had the edge, he was the man.
Diggs said, ‘You chickening out on me …’ he paused. ‘You alright? Look pale as?’
‘Pale, I’m fucking Nigerian.’ Regardless, he turned to the mirror. His face greying and stressed out. He carped no more.
Malone crashed in. He was an unstable Dubliner, who sported an array of badly drawn tattoos, a clean shaved head and thick ginger beard. ‘The fuck’s up, like?’
‘Any sign of Stiffy?’
Malone laughed, ‘probably out riding.’
‘How the fuck should I know? He rarely asks them, never mind tells me, sure the last one took his teeth out with a laptop. Remember her.’ Malone winced.
They stared from one to the other in silence until Malone interrupted the quiet. ‘Have I missed something?’
Napalm said. ‘Got a package this morning.’
Eyes switched to W.T.F. on each face, but no one said anything. Napalm never got spooked, something was cooking.
Napalm reached into his gym bag and pulled out the colourful cardboard box which was decorated with pictures of fairies, sparkles and love hearts. Inside was a plastic bag. He removed it from the box and threw it onto the slotted wooden bench where it landed with a wet plop. No one went near it it.
Malone said. ‘Yeah, and what is it?’
‘Think it’s Stiffy.’
Malone grunted and looked closer. ‘He was bigger than that, the last time I saw him.’ Malone laughed and stopped when he realised Napalm was serious.
Diggs took a step back.
Two small round objects about an inch diameter, lay in messy fluid in the plastic bag. Malone poked them with his finger. ‘What are they?’
Diggs said. ‘They his testicles?’
Malone pulled his hand away. ‘That’s fucking gross.’
‘That’s what I thought. Someone’s husband getting the angers cause Stiffy stiffed his Mrs. You know what the horny bastard’s like? But they aren’t his nuts.’
They all nodded and looked closer. ‘If those aren’t balls, what are they?’
‘Kidneys?’ Malone and Diggs said together.
‘Kidneys.’ Napalm nodded. ‘I think they’re Stiffy’s kidneys.’
‘Shit. Really?’ Malone half smiled in disbelief.
‘…if I knew that I wouldn’t be …look I’d don’t even know if they are his or what. Just got this note with them.’ He passed a pink piece of blood smeared paper to Malone. It contained a hand written message in neat curling blue handwriting. Malone took it at the edge, holding it like it was a dead rat. He read it out.
Please find Stiffy’s kidneys enclosed. You won’t find the rest of him, well maybe his head.
Oh, and you’re next, then Malone and Diggs.
Night night, Sleep well,
‘What’s with the Xs and Os?’ said Diggs.
‘Hugs and kisses. Someone really wants to wind you up,’ Malone shook his head.
‘You mean, wind us up, you two are next,’ Napalm nodded to the message.
‘The fuck does it mean? And who is M?’ said Malone realising that he was the only M in the room. The others glared at him. ‘Hey, don’t look at me,’ he nodded to the bag. ‘That’s sick.’
Napalm shrugged. ‘Facts are, Stiffy ain't here, when he should be here, and those are kidneys. Whether they’re his or not, or human or not, matters not. Someone thinks they can have a shot at me.’
‘No one would try to take you on, you own Streatham.’
‘Yeah, well, that says otherwise.’ He opened and closed his fists, more in uncertainty than aggression. ‘I’ll find them and scoop their own kidneys out with a spoon.’ Despite the angry lingo Napalm remained on edge.
‘Removing someone’s kidneys, that’s not Streatham. No one here would do that. Hackney, maybe.’ Malone laughed at his jape, no one else did. ‘Where’d you find them, anyways, were they, like, delivered or something? D.H.L.?’
Napalm’s face told everyone that Malone had struck the source of his angst. Napalm looked at each of them in turn. ‘They were under my pillow this morning. Along with the note.’
‘Shit, Man, in your flat?’
‘Where else do I have a fucking pillow?’
‘And you were sleeping?’
‘I’d have seen the bastard if I’d been awake.’ Napalm kicked the bench and the bag flipped up dispersing the kidneys across the floor. ‘And they sure as hell weren’t there when I went to sleep.’
‘Someone broke into your gaff while you…’
‘…well done, Rockford.’
‘That’d freak you out.’ Malone shook his head.
‘Tell me something I don’t know,’ Napalm shouted, rattling everyone. He wrapped the kidneys in the bag and stuffed them back into the box. ‘Do the rounds, see who knows what. And go in heavy, I want the world and its donkey to know I’m pissed at this.’
‘I’ll tell you this,’ said Malone, ‘you can’t be human and do that to someone. Any amount of heavy ain’t deterring something that would do that.’
PART ONE - WE WERE ALL HAPPY ONCE
Chapter 1 - Old School Chums
Ten Years Ago
Jimmy Johnson raced through the damp streets of Old Town Edinburgh wondering what sort of loser orders five litres of Starbucks, ‘Sugar Cookie Frappuccino Blended Beverage,’ each with ‘extra double expresso shots,’ at eight in the evening. In fact who orders that crap at any time of day? At Chambers Street he jumped the red light, upped the pavement, dived down Infirmary Street and into Hanging Lane, thinking, they’ll be Frappuccinoed to bollocks by the time he gets there. Skidding to a stop, he sussed the address; number 12, flat 3 B. He pushed the buzzer.
‘Yaaaaaaar,’ said the intercom voice, giving Jimmy his answer.
‘Got a Starbucks order for,’ he checked his app, ‘…Arsen…eh… Orson?’
‘Oh, cool. Be right with you,’ said the young voice with the confidence gifted by trust fund and private school.
The door swung open. A tall blond guy, wearing corduroys, Tattersall checked shirt and cravat appeared with a smile and a two pound tip. ‘Marvellous.’
Jimmy handed over the package, ‘What do you do with that shite?’
Orson smiled. ‘I add a double measure of Campari and three large Stolichnaya to each. Stir and finish with crushed ice, grated ginger and fresh chilli. They’re absolutely divine. I’ve named them Cheltenham Stallions, because of their kick.’
‘Like a stuck up Buckfast?’
Orson pointed a finger at Jimmy in agreement and grinned. ‘Bang on.’
‘Every day’s a school day,’ said Jimmy, pocketing his tip and checking his Uber Eats app for next job, even before the door shut behind him. The app pinged a pick up from Juliano’s Pizzas Stockbridge. He smiled because Rachel Bagshot worked there and Jimmy had the horn for Rachel, big time. He immediately accepted, without checking delivery destination and even though Juliano’s was in Stockbridge at the other end of the city. Fifteen minutes to pick up, for her, he’d do it in ten. He, popped his ear buds in, listening to Undertones, Jimmy Jimmy, as he peddled off, his legs spinning like he’d just nicked the bike from a man with an axe.
Jimmy mentally mapped Edinburgh out as being like a fried egg. Expensive Georgian New Town, trendy Victorian Stockbridge, wealthy Murrayfield, the millionaires of The Grange, yuppie old town students and a castle, formed the yolk in the middle, which is where Jimmy focused his attention. This wealth of easy access and tipping customers was circled by a blend of housing, with residents of varied pocket depth and mixed generosity. Right down to traffic light sequences and back alleys, he knew the fastest route through the most profitable runs and he knew the jobs to avoid, ones like Stones Estate, Stones being the last of Edinburgh’s 1960’s hi-rise council neglected developments that clung to the city’s skyline like concrete cellulite. Everyone avoided Stones. Unless they had to get a baggie or a gun, or they screwed up a job allocation.
This job took him from one side of that yolk to the other. He was two hours ten into a wet three hour Tuesday night shift as he flew across Princess Street, narrowly missing a tram, a cat and a gamut of Chinese tourists, and up Hanover Street, standing up off the saddle to max out his effort. Every second counted when customers could return tardy orders.
He’d been working extra hours because Nan’s state pension barely covered their rent and he wanted to get her a treat as his seventeenth birthday approached and, as a present to himself, he was going to buy her dinner at Juliano’s. Not just because Rachel worked there - although if Juliano only made dog shit pie he’d go there just on the off chance she’d be on - but because he made the best pizzas in the city and Juliano doted on Nan. Nan the old flirt lapped it up like she was a lovesick teenager and not a seventy nine year old diabetic with a limp.
Weather turned from dreich to yillen as he arrived at Juliano’s. Recovering, after the effort of crossing town so fast, he stood in the rain watching Rachel’s silky movements through the window, whilst she took orders at the til, her hair bobbing in time to her movements and her smile lighting up everyone’s faces. He could have stood there in the rain watching her all evening, God she was as cool as, with her gingery blonde hair and deep blue ‘love me’ eyes. She had ambition, she wanted to be a journalist, she ran the school magazine and raised money for sick kids. She’d shot him a smile last week as they were studying liver function in biology and they’d sat together in English Lit studying Romeo and Juliette. He’d been thinking with his trousers not his head, when he’d accepted the job making him rush through the city instead of seeking an easy number around student land. He checked his watch. Shit. He dived for the door.
Jimmy felt ready to throw himself into love’s great abyss and as he pushed open the door he smiled at Rachel with his whole heart.
‘Hi,’ said Jimmy.
‘Hi,’ said Rachel.
Jimmy stood staring, his mouth hanging like a dead trout’s, wondering what to say, even though he knew what to say.
‘Eh, can I get you something?’ Rachel gave him one of her smiles which made Jimmy’s mouth snap shut.
‘Oh yeah, Uber Eats, for…’ he checked his app ‘…oh shit.’ He immediately regretted being so quick to take the order, BK5, 7th Fl, No. 38, Stones Estate. He could dump the job but that would mean a black mark and he probably wouldn’t get the next runs, which meant no money. He couldn’t lose face in front of Rachel and he didn’t want to let Juliano down. He thought of Nan waiting for him at home satisfying her eclectic TV Taste and swallowed his objections.
Rachel gave him another smile, which made up for his school boy error in delivery judgement. She lifted four giant pizza boxes from behind the counter.
He attempted some flirtatious small talk about the connections between biology and Romeo and Juliet, which was reciprocated.
‘They’re dead now, Romeo and Juliette. They died in amor-tuary.’ Jimmy laughed.
Rachel didn’t, at first.
Jimmy’s heart fell, he’s made a fool of himself with a crap jape.
‘Oh God I’m so slow.’ She burst out laughing and touched his hand, letting it linger, he hoped, longer than just a little flirt. She bit her lip in that perfect way and flicked her hair behind her ear. Yet again, he thought, he wanted to stay there all night. He’d never wash that hand again.
‘How’s Nan?’ she asked.
‘Feisty,’ he replied. ‘At home watching Kill Bill 2.’
‘Either that or reruns of Bargain Hunt.’
With these snippets of verbal encouragement he gathered the courage to ask her out on a date. He started off well, getting as far as the word, ‘Would…’ when a voice from the kitchens boomed down the restaurant.
‘Hey, Jimmy, move your ass. I don’t want that sent back. So kiss kiss, bye bye.’ Juliano walked through the tables to the front, waving his hands to encourage Jimmy out the door.
Jimmy whispered, ‘How can someone so small be so loud?’
Juliano said. ‘You doing the Stones delivery?’
Jimmy nodded. ‘Afraid so.’
‘Not like you.’
‘Yeah well,’ he unconsciously glanced at Rachel.
Juliano smiled . ‘Ahhhhh, I see.’ He sang 10cc’s , ‘The things we do for love,’ and danced a solitary waltz.
Jimmy felt his face redden. ‘Better go. See you.’ He grabbed the pizzas and walked towards the door, looking backwards at Rachel, and banged into a pillar. He swore, adding, ‘Sorry.’
Rachel and Juliano clapped and Jimmy’s faced flamed.
Rachel called, as Jimmy struggled with the door and his pizza pile. ‘Hey Jimmy.’
He spun round, one hand on the door, the other steadying the precarious boxes.
‘Yes, I’d love to. Just say when and where.’
He was smiling too much to reply so he nodded and left. Outside he squashed the four ‘Giant Gut-Buster’ Pizzas diagonally into his insulated bag, slipped ear buds in, his Spotify mix picked out Delivery by Baby Shambles, and he raced his bike through lashing rain to the houses of hell. Up kerbs and through red lights, he was on a mission, because his brief encounter with Rachel had cost him time. Even so, he smiled because Rachel had smiled at him. She wanted to go out. Life was good, he had Nan, his job and he had hope and heart bolstered by two smiles and a short alluring conversation. He’d ask her out tomorrow. Definitely. A horn blasted and a lorry nearly turned him into road kill. ‘Wanker,’ Jimmy screamed at the back of the lorry, raced round the front and gave the driver the bird as the lights turned red ahead. Jimmy raced through, ignoring the horns of crossing traffic.
On arrival at Stones he sheltered under a tree to check the address on his app; block five, seventh floor, flat thirty-eight. Then he looked up at the maze of giant concrete monstrosities that, in the dark wet evening, resembled gravestones, or as Jimmy said aloud, ‘It’s a fucking pizza-man’s nightmare.’ He checked the time, ‘shit,’ he’s late.
He found block five by a process of elimination, as the building numbers had been stolen. He locked his bike to a metal drain pipe. Against common sense he pushed the call button on the lift and swore as nothing happened and he had to wipe something sticky off his finger. He turned to the long dark corridor that led to the stairwell. Shadows and urine were the dominant theme in a corridor best described as a rapist’s wet dream. With a sense of dread he made his way along the tunnel telling himself that if he gets out without contracting sepsis he’s going home early, this would be his last job and he chastised himself to always check destinations before pressing ‘accept.’ ‘Dickhead,’ he said to himself, more than once, as he stepped between needles, bulging condoms, and puddles off unknown origins, on the way up the stairs.
Incident free, he emerged, relieved, at the tenth floor, hot food bag over his back, in a panting mess, and puffed his way along a dark open corridor, side blasted by wind and rain, to the last flat on the row. There was no number on the door. He checked the flat before, it said thirty-seven, so Jimmy banged the door, of hopefully, thirty-eight. No answer, just the sound of East Enders theme tune. He banged again, harder this time. The door opened.
He immediately wished it had stayed shut.
‘You’re fucking late. Twat….’ said an unshaven gut-bucket wearing nothing but a dirty vest and ex-white boxers. The stink of cigarettes, B.O. and weed wafted out. He had red sauce over his lips and on his chest and, what looked like a rabid poodle, yapped between his legs. A can of Carlsberg Special Brew hung from his left hand. Jimmy jumped back as the beast snapped at him. The guy took a slug from his tinny. ‘…so we got a refund.’
Jimmy give the guy his best smile. ’Yeah, sorry. It’s a long walk up here and…’
‘…yeah, well fuck you, and your pizza, we also got a curry.’
Gut-bucket snatched the pizzas and threw them over the edge. Jimmy spun, leaned on the wall and watched the pepperoni bread frisbees being dispersed by the wind, eventually floating to Earth where they were welcomed by angry swearing. The door slammed shut behind him before he turned round again.
Jimmy shouted, ‘Fuck!’ and kicked the door. The cheap hollow door had gone rotten at the bottom and his foot went right through. Gut-Bucket tried to rip the door open, succeeding only to pull Jimmy’s leg back and forward like a ramrod. Jimmy fell on his arse on the dirt and damp desperately trying to remove his trapped limb.
‘I’ll fucking kill you when I get oot o’ere,’ but he couldn’t get out cause Jimmy’s foot remained stuck in his door.
Jimmy kicked the door with his left foot trying to release the right, the splintered wood shredding skin off his ankle,’ Ahhgghh, ouch, bastard.’ It came loose and he scrambled up and legged it back the way he came with angry dirty pant man screaming behind. Lucky for Jimmy the guy was wasted as well as obese. Ironic, thought Jimmy, as he gave up the chase and shouted, ‘If I see ya again, I’ll kill ya, ya fat fuck.’ Jimmy then heard the sound of puking.
Quickly, he made his way downstairs to find a broken drain pipe where his bike should have been. He kicked the pipe. It was made of steel. ‘Bollocks!’ Jimmy jumped up and down holding his toe, his empty hot food bag dropped too the ground.
The rain came down harder.
Just when he thought things couldn’t get worse, they got worse.
‘Yo, shit head, that you throwing pizzas at me?’
Jimmy recognised the owner of the voice as Ryan Lennox, head-case number one at his old school, Gilmerton Boys High (A.K.A., G.B.H.). Time had treated Lennox like it held a vendetta against him. Rumour had it that Lennox became a drug dealer on leaving G.B.H. and judging by his crazed eyes Jimmy guessed that Lennox snorted more Charlie than he sold. He had a red stain down his jacket which at first looked sinister, then Jimmy realised it was pizza sauce and that his Uber Eats Jacket made Jimmy the likely cause.
‘Eh no. Hey, you were at my school.’ Jimmy pointed behind him even though in the dark he had no idea in what direction G.B.H. lay.
Lennox wasn’t interested in the old school tie argument. ‘You calling me a liar?’
‘No, just …’
‘Look at my fucking coat and boots.’
Jimmy glanced down at the tomato stained mess on Lennox’s leather jacket and green faux crocodile skin cowboy boots and, as he raised his head, Lennox nutted him. He fell to the ground and rolled scrambling in the dirt holding his face, reeling in agony, pains he momentarily forgot about as Lennox kicked him hard in his ribs. He just managed to dodge a damaging kick to his jaw as Lennox’s right boot skidded off his cheek. Jimmy wasn’t one for boxing but was bright enough to know that attack was a good defence. Usually. So he jumped up and took a swing at Lennox. And connected, a right crack too, that took Lennox by surprise. Lennox stumbled back and swore. His surprise turned to anger and Lennox whipped out a flick knife which clicked open revealing a long pointy blade. Jimmy barely had time to feel the terror and agonies of likely stabbing as Lennox swung the knife wildly at Jimmy while calling him a twat. Jimmy backed away as Lennox lurched forward striking Jimmy on his arm, ripping through the material and slicing his arm. He stumbled, turned and ran straight into the bushes behind him. He hit a wall in the dark, fell again. He clambered the wall and fell winded onto a pavement on the other side.
Jimmy lay there a few moments. His breath returned in gasps. His coat, cut from the blade seeped blood and he felt liquid running down his arm. His nose ached and dripped something down his face which he smeared away with a wipe of a dirty sleeve. Even so he felt relief. If he’d ended up in hospital or dead, what would Nan do without him? And he’d never get to go out with Rachel. He was sure Lennox just wanted to scare him, give him a thumping for covering him in tomato sauce and coming onto his patch even though he was just selling pizzas and not dope. As he began to right himself with thoughts of getting home and cleaned he looked up and swore.
Lennox appeared at the end of the wall twenty yards along the road and began walking towards him, the blade reflecting lights as cars roared past. Jimmy jumped up and ran across the road, ignoring the honks of traffic. A railway bridge ahead, he’d jump the wall onto the embankment, up the other side and away. He knew the area because as a kid he had played on that embankment before the council ruined every child’s train-spotting fantasy by erecting anti-railway children fences. He climbed up, Lennox’s thumping feet behind him. Jimmy swung his feet over and dropped onto the wet grass. Wet and slippery grass. He lost his footing and fell, tumble turning out of control and off the edge of the cutting, straight into the path of the approaching 20:55 to Shotts.
If he’d looked up he would have seen Lennox’s smiling face peeking over the bridge, saying, ‘holy fuck.’