PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Cover design: Marie Lane
I’m supposed to die tonight
I pick the kettle out of the cupboard beneath the sink. It knocks my third gun to the floor. I use the handle of the teaspoon in the trigger-guard to return the gun to where it was and raise the kettle. I’ve lost my left sock, so I keep the bare foot off the cold stone tiles and I fold my arms as the kettle fills. The mobile phone I’m now ignoring rings, then stops.
ONE MISSED CALL… MERLEY
There’s an episode of Columbo on the small soundless 14-inch screen TV which I keep in the kitchen. Out of the window I’ve got a captivating view of a flat that has an equally captivating view of mine. I’m very happy with the place. Sometimes when I come home from the rest of Hackney I almost feel like praying to God in thanks, but I don’t, because I don’t believe in God. I suppose I’m an atheist. But I’m an African and to be an African atheist is sacrilege.
On the TV there’s a middle-aged woman killing a younger woman. I know she’s not killing the younger woman because she’s better looking. The older one’s better looking. Maybe she doesn’t know it. This must be the cover-up killing, because I’ve already seen Columbo on the screen. That’s how I know the shiny classic TV show is Columbo and not Quincy, or the Rockford Files or the one with Perry Mason in a wheelchair. Columbo never turns up before the main murder has been committed. I always feel sorry for the victim of the cover-up kill because a lot of the time he or she didn’t deserve it unlike the victim of the main murder. It’s usually a blackmailer or inna witness, but sometimes it’s just an unlucky mug in the wrong place at the wrong time. Columbo doesn’t investigate the cover-up kill’s murder in the same way. It doesn’t eat at him like that first killing that brought him and his dusty car into the piece. At best their murder turns out to be just a clue for the main murder. You’re dead and you’re nothing but a clue. That’s messed up.
ONE MISSED CALL… MERLEY
I switch channels. Local news without sound is even easier to figure out than an old cop show I’ve watched hundreds of times before. There’s a police officer moving between street fixtures applying caution tape, and some of his colleagues standing around pointing things out to other police officers. It’s east London and somebody is dead, violently, and they don’t know who did it. Shaking my head I change back to the 70s murder and note that the water has almost – No! I can’t go on like this. I’ve talked about what’s on TV and now I’m about to start on about a boiling kettle.
Let me tell you what this is. I’m probably going to be killed soon, probably today. I don’t expect you to save me. I’m betting you don’t save lives. I’m going to send any evidence to lawyers, government officials, politicians, businessmen, some corrupt police officers, the police in general, and one doctor. Between them, they can variously expose, embarrass, jail or kill the men who kill me. If you’re not one of the above, you’ve gotten this from someone who’s in the know. Hopefully, they’ve already done something about what you’re about to read.
I’m from a dangerous part of London called Hackney. I know all the people in London that will put you in danger. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know every gun-toter and knife hider by name, but the men they call boss, them I know.
There’s not really a name for what I do. I’ve tried a few and had a few tried on me. A fixer, independent gangster, connection man. I make money by solving problems and resolving situations that you can’t involve the government in. For every state of affairs that might get you in trouble if you talk to the wrong people – I’m the right man for you.
This is not what’s going to kill me. It’s a contributory factor at best. I do piss off important people in my work, it’s inevitable, but then they’ll owe a favour to someone who owes me a favour or who I’m safe with, so I get a pass, or a bly as they say on the road. They usually promise to kill me the next time, but by then I would’ve done more work, and more favours are owed. You get the picture.
Anyway, here’s my problem: half an hour ago, I received a phone call from a man offering me some work. The man’s name is Grayson Fielding, a man I don’t know. Straightaway I’m worried. I’ve run an internet search on Grayson Fielding. It was a name I should be familiar with, but I wasn’t before this morning. Grayson Fielding was educated at Marlborough College and Sandhurst before joining the Army. In his ten-year career he saw active service in the Falklands and the First Gulf War. He then went into the City working for a merchant bank. He is now on the board of four FTSE 100 companies and chairman of Investment Holdings which is owned by the Fielding family. He has a penthouse in the City, a house in Hampstead, an estate in Norfolk and property abroad. Men like Grayson Fielding with lords as friends and with millions of pounds – some of it in banks that are not offshore – don’t have problems his government friends can’t solve. This probably means nothing to you but to me that’s Alarm 1.
When I was younger I used to read books about private detectives. Even with the law-breaking side to what I do, I’m the closest thing to a private detective I know. In literature the detective’s job is to get set up. In detective fiction there is the noir prostitute. Disposable. The police are happy to have one less getting in their way and their deaths are not investigated that hard, whether or not they’re the cover-up kill.
Three signs the detective has a target he can’t see on his chest:
Alarm 1 – The job doesn’t seem right. Why does the client need me at all?
Alarm 2 – A beautiful woman who the man can fall in love with brings him the work.
Alarm 3 – There’s too much money being offered for the job.
In short, the more interesting a case appears, the more likely the case is not all it appears to be. Grayson Fielding’s case ticks one box at least. The internet search turns up random images of the man but the ones that really get my attention are the ones of him with a young woman. His third wife, apparently. Maybe it was his beautiful wife who had the problem. Would a white man call in a Black man to solve his wife’s problems though?
So if I know this path might get me killed, why would I choose to follow it? Well, the answer is, I don’t know why I don’t run. The fact is, I haven’t been in real danger for a while. I miss it, I think. So I’m about to get some.
Oh, if this is going to work you’ll be needing to know who I am. My name is Nathan Mensah. People call me Nate, because I can’t get them to stop.
Weisse jungs bringen’s nicht
TWO MISSED CALLS… MERLEY
Fielding rang me at eight o’clock in the morning. At eight o’clock I didn’t know who Grayson Fielding was or his number, and I didn’t know anybody who calls at eight o’clock, so I didn’t pick up the call. I now replay the message he left.
‘Hello, Mr Mensah. My name is Grayson Fielding. I was given your name and details as someone who should be able to help me with a… problem I have. Please call me back on…’
One can learn a lot from voicemails, and not just what people say and how they say it. That they leave a message at all and how they do it are informative. Fielding’s tone is that of a man who’s used to getting his calls returned. He left the message after calling me only once. This all tells me something. He leaves a pause between a and problem. I like that. It means what he has might just as easily be called a situation or misunderstanding. I excel in both.
Two-thirds of a cup of tea later I call him back. He picks up halfway through the third ring.
‘Hello Mr Fielding. This is Nathan Mensah returning your call.’
‘Mr Mensah, it’s very good to hear from you.’
I’m straight to business, ‘When will you be available to discuss your… problem?’
‘Ten this morning, at my place in The Bishop’s Avenue?’ He doesn’t wait for me to agree before informing me of the house number.
Grayson Fielding hasn’t mentioned money but I’ve already priced him and the job. Seeing as this might be my last ever job I’m going to request half a million pounds but settle for a quarter.
Have no gun – will travel
ONE MISSED CALL… MERLEY
I’ve got a couple of things to do before my ten o’clock with Grayson Fielding. The first thing I’ve got to find out is if somebody wants me dead or if my name is doing the rounds today as a disposable brother. That’s happened before.
I ignore the missed calls because I need to make one. I hold down the 2/abc touch button.
I hear an explosion of glass just as I’m about to open my front door. I spring to the wall, put my back to it and listen. Holding my breath I don’t hear more sounds of danger. Only more sounds of minor destruction. With caution I move my head towards a window which looks out at the road. There’s a bunch of kids breaking into a car with the exuberance of youth. Four of them, all Black, none older than thirteen. One’s done the breaking, two are looking out for the police and a fourth is standing astride his BMX bike screwing its seat back into place. Innovative but not original. It’s the bike seat they’ve used to break the glass, bending it out of shape. They should have used one of those heavy D-locks.
The car’s a bright green convertible. If they’d all looked like they were doing it to feed themselves I would leave them to it, even if it did bring the police around. They just look bored though. The one who’s broken the window now knocks loose bits of glass from around the opening so he won’t cut himself as he puts his hand through it searching for the handle to open the door.
‘Oi!’ I open wide the large picture window I’m looking through with as much noise as I can, which is not much. ‘Get away from my motor!’
All four of them stop what they’re doing. They look around for a second before one by one they spot where my voice is coming from. We look at each other then BMX-boy looks at the two lookouts who in turn look at the biggest, the glass breaker – the operation’s point man. He looks up at a Black man wearing a navy blue sweater under a fitted casual jacket. Suit and tie is my usual uniform but I don’t want Fielding thinking I’m trying to impress him. The four juveniles are thus far not impressed.
‘Get. Away. From. My. Car!’ I repeat.
They all turn back to face me waiting for me to do something that should convince them to leave. I kiss my teeth and act as if I’m getting out of the window. Quick enough they assess that there’s a good chance I can make the twelve foot jump down to the fake pebbles and be on them in seconds. Three run away laughing and putting their fingers up at me. BMX-boy cycles off and quickly overtakes the others.
‘I know your faces! If I see you again, you’re finished!’ They now have a story to tell the rest of their friends. They don’t look bored any more.
I watch as the slowest one disappears around a corner. After waiting a bit to make sure no one reappears, I get down and close the window and take the stairs to the ground.
The damaged convertible looks disappointed with the world. The removable top is a hard one or they would have gone in silently through the roof. I take a look. The driver’s side window only has a few shards of glass remaining.
No east-London criminal would commit a daytime humble on a Thursday morning without running a risk-benefit analysis, and there’s the benefit – a handbag lies just in sight under the passenger’s side seat. There’s a bunch of £20 notes inside it and a load of folded unopened bills still in their envelopes. I’ve deprived those boys of quite a payday. £100 cash between the four of them wouldn’t be bad for a minute’s work. Plus, whatever they could get from any uncles who would use the utility bills for a spot of ID theft.
I bundle the handbag and everything else together including the car particulars from the glove compartment. There’s also a blue docket holder holding an icon of a stick figure sitting on half a circle. It’s only then I notice the car is parked in a disabled bay with the matching wheelchair icon. Even with the busted window it doesn’t seem to belong in this bay. No kind of disabled person would drive an impractical coupé like this.
All the letters are addressed to a Kelja Tateossian. Number 48 in my building. That’s my floor. I’ve got things to do with my time but in for a pesewa, in for a cedi. I return to my building and press the button of the flat on the opposite corner of my level. I think I hear a corresponding buzzing sound inside. I can hear the light footsteps on the wooden floor of a woman or juvenile male approaching. The footsteps stop. Either the corridor in front of the door is carpeted or the approaching person has stopped to look at me in their security monitor.
I try to adopt a pose like I’m not carrying a gun. I’m not carrying a gun so I should just stand still but I don’t. I fidget and look suspicious. Still, the door creaks open part of the way. There’s no, ‘Who are you?’ or ‘What’s your business here?’ The door just opens like I’m not considered dangerous.
A man with one of those odd full beards with no moustache like Abraham Lincoln peeks through the door. He is very short and mixed-race Black or west Asian.
I address the beard, ‘Is that your car downstairs? The green coupé parked in the disabled bay?’
He looks at me in the silence, not sure if he wants, needs or ought to answer my questions. The silence is broken by a grunt from the beard before a female voice beckons him back and the door is slammed shut. I hear a male and a female conferring. I wave the log book and papers in front of the door’s spy hole and security camera.
The door opens again and the man’s eyes watch the items pass in the gap.
‘My car!’ says the woman behind him. Her eyes are the same green as the car.
‘The Fiat?’ I add.
I’m suspicious, because beard contradicts her, ‘It’s a Peugeot!’
That’s all I need and I’m happy to hand over all the particulars I’m holding, but before getting on with my day I am curious whether this odd couple can keep the pantomime up.
‘You got any brief?’
‘ID? Identification?’ I add to un-confuse her, or both of them.
Immediately, a skinny tanned arm that doesn’t belong to the beard twists out of the opening, and I stare at the side of her wrist to the base of her palm. Tattooed in calligraphic letters is the name KELJA.
‘I see,’ I say and because I have to maintain positive relations with my neighbours I shove the paperwork in the pocketbook and I hand the tattooed arm it’s property. If it’s not theirs they have gone to a lot of trouble to steal an identity, even with the French-Italian car discrepancy. The hand disappears with its property into the apartment then comes back empty requesting a handshake.
Bemused I grant it, asking, ‘If you’re with the AA or something, call them to come fix your car window! Kids broke into it. I saw what happened from my flat and disturbed them before they got anything.’
‘Oh! Thank you!’ The beard’s voice this time.
‘Welcome to Hackney: where your property is all our property!’ I muse loudly and mostly to myself as I descend the staircase.
Still no response.
I leave a message.
‘KLU. MENSAH. CALL ME.’
Grayson Fielding and the stage show I’ve just left behind mean I am more occupied with my thoughts than normal, so I see them too late. A familiar man and an unfamiliar woman.They weren’t in uniform but with their dark, loose three-quarter-length coats they might just as well have been.
I didn’t need this. I slow down then stop walking but too late, I’m thinking. I lift my right foot to take a step back. I manage the step back. I can’t believe I haven’t been spotted. One and a half more steps and I could turn, put my collar up and actually make it out of here. I could pretend not to hear if they call me back. Still holding my breath I shift my body weight ready to take another step. Then, the pathetic Peugeot’s alarm starts blaring. I swear under my breath. As both people turn in my direction I can no longer lie to myself into thinking I could have got out of here without being seen.
The man blinks at me with a curious expression on his face. The longer he does this the longer the debate raging in me continues. If he can’t recall my name after all this time, it’s a humbling experience for me. If he can remember but is trying to intimidate me, he’s humbled himself. He changes tack and smiles. He looks at the shining Peugeot and the noise it is making about a hundred metres back, then at me, while I try to look like I’m not involved. His build and his cauliflower ears are evidence of a boxing past he could blame most of his ugliness on. He still forces his fat into muscle at the free-to-use station gym but the slow deliberate way he talks is a better sign of his fighting past than his physique. Here’s a man who for several reasons doesn’t have to rely on eloquence to…
‘Mensah isn’t it?’
‘Inspector Roacher,’ I say by way of hello and how are you?
Roacher puts an arm out towards his partner. His arm matches the direction of the Navarino Road sign above him affecting an invisible boundary. ‘This is Detective Inspector George.’
Detective Inspector George bears a striking resemblance to my old foster mother. She’s about forty years her junior but easily her equal in obesity. Set in her much smoother face are eyes that don’t have the love for me that Aunty Merley’s eyes have. D. I. George could have been anything: a teacher, politician, a chef, but she has chosen to be a police officer even though she hasn’t that hardness in the eye women police officers always have that tell of all the bullshit they take from their male colleagues and how they’ll be damned if they take any from other men.
Roacher turns to his colleague, ‘Oh, have you met Mr Mensah?’
‘Mensah?’ she asks.
‘Yes, Mensah like the brain club but with an h!’ Roacher shows his open mouth to us with a lot of British bulldog teeth in it, ‘Mensah, Nathan, also known as Nate.’ Roacher taps the signpost behind him like he’s sending a message in Morse code, ‘We’ve had him in a few times for questioning… but no convictions.’
The car alarm finally stops then.
Roacher takes to squinting at me now, ‘Nate, for the benefit of my new colleague, how is it we haven’t managed to get you locked up?’
There’s silence. Roacher looks at me. He actually wants an answer.
‘Because I didn’t do it.’ I reflect.
‘Didn’t do…?’ Roacher urges.
‘I didn’t do… the things that the Metropolitan Constabulary come around asking about, and locking people up for… It wasn’t me.’
‘Well, there you have it!’ Roacher comments for Detective Inspector George’s benefit.
His voice gets accusatory for the first time, an impressive delay for this police officer, ‘What about the things the Constabulary,’ he rolls this word around his mouth before continuing with his sentence, ‘can’t prove? The facilitations? The ideas? The introductions? The tip-offs? The information?’
I think about shrugging but don’t.
‘D. I. George is very well educated Nate, just like you! Miss George tell Nate here what qualifications you hold.’
When he uses an unmarried title instead of her police one, I hope for a scowl or rolling of the eyes but she holds the thin blue line. The police I’ve met are always too professional to let personal dislikes of colleagues show in front of career crim-inals. I have to find other weak traits and responses to exploit. A fat Black policewoman should have her share. Meanwhile D. I. George informs me, ‘I hold a degree in sociology and anthropology and a masters in criminal psychology.’
In a voice that sounds like he’s sulking Roacher says, ‘Policing is just like any other industry going through evolutionary changes. We started with the thief-takers, and the glorified errand boys for the upper classes, then came police officers like me who share the same background as the criminals we’re trying to catch.’ He pauses, contemplating D. I. George. She has nothing to add. He respects this. ‘Now, we’ve got the community police fad with officers attending partnership meetings with social workers and ambulance drivers and all sorts, trying to figure out how to hug infant criminals more. But see, criminals are getting smarter so we have to keep up. We have to develop a new way to cope with the modern gangster.’
ONE MISSED CALL… MERLEY
‘Very soon D. I. George here and a merry band of highly-educated officers will make it their life’s work to target that whole grey area of the underworld you operate in.’ Roacher looks at me. ‘You Nate, are what this new police force is calling… What was it again?’
‘An enabling factor.’ George fills in.
‘An enabling factor!’ Roacher echoes, ‘Yes that was it. An enabling factor.’ Our meeting was almost over now. ‘So as you go about your business today I want you to keep that in mind, alright?’
I use body language to say I would like to leave now, but say, ‘I’ll keep that in mind.’
He doesn’t nod. He just looks at me and his eyes seem to get glassier by the second.
I walk on past them not looking back. I know he won’t still be watching me, but maybe she is. Roacher has always been a policeman that didn’t take his job too seriously but I don’t know what the addition of this educated partner and that bizarre breakfast conversation mean for me.
Still, I’m happy I left my guns at home.