I first met Kevin in a bar. It’s where I meet most of my clients. He struck me as an ideal customer – quiet, reserved, head-hunched like a turtle. A sap, in other words. A man society would continue to shit on, but that was okay because people like Kevin expected it. Or so I thought. I was wrong about that. I thought it’d be easy to fleece him – that I would lend him the money and be able to bully back twice as much off him in the long run, maybe more. I was wrong about that, too.
My contact told me Kevin had lost his wife and kid in a house fire a few years back. Poor sap, I thought. No family to threaten, but he’d probably be more easy to intimidate. He approached me and coughed, like a child before a teacher. I said I’d been expecting him, and we shook hands. He shook hands like a little girl.
“Take a seat,” I said. He thanked me and sat opposite.
I’d already taken in everything I needed to know from his walk across the bar. He oozed helplessness. “I understand you’re having money problems.” Kevin’s eyes flitted back and forth, in case of ear-wiggers.
“I need two grand,” he said. “Quickly.” His voice carried some gravel to it, which was a surprise I must admit. Not a problem, though.
“Do you want to know what it’s for?”
He swallowed. “Can you help me?”
“Yes.” I’d already decided that before we’d sat down. “I’ll bring £2,000 cash to your address tomorrow evening. Okay?”
“Yes. Yes. Thank you.” He added, “I should be able to pay you back by the end of the month.”
I smiled. “I’ll be in touch.” And don’t forget it, boy-o. I rose and left the bar, wondering how much I’d be able to get out of him, how far I could push him.
I slept very well that night.
“Bill, it’s Janine.”
My insides dropped. I sighed. “What do you want?”
“I want you to stop hanging around Charlie’s school. I’ve told you before. It confuses him.”
“He’s my son, Janine.”
“Only when it suits you…”
I hung up. Janine was such a bitch. Even before the divorce. Using our six-year-old as a pawn in her little games. ‘Oh, why didn’t you come and see him today, Bill, like you said you would?’ and ‘Oh, he was waiting by the window.’ and ‘Oh, stop trying to turn him against me.’
I redid my tie to keep my hands busy. Stupid bitch deserved every smack I gave her. And more!
It’d been a month since I’d loaned Kevin the two grand. A little less than a month, actually, but it was good to keep a client on his toes. Remind them who’s boss. I’d kept tabs on him. Seems our friend Kevin had to buy himself out of trouble, by buying into more. I visited him that night.
No emotion registered on his face when he opened the door to me. He actually welcome me into his home, and said, “Can I make you a cup of tea?”
Perhaps a tactic to try and get me on his side. Befriend me. Clients had tried it in the past. I charged them extra. “No thanks,” I said. “Just my money. The month’s up.”
“I still have two days,” Kevin said, busying himself with the draining board in the kitchen. Outside, a small dog was bouncing round the garden. He stopped when he saw me and started yapping his ugly head off.
I looked away from the dog. “I don’t work weekends.”
“Oh.” No panic in his voice. That annoyed me. “I have most of it,” Kevin said. “£1,500.” He got out a tin from a cupboard and set it on the table. “I can give you the remaining £500 on Monday.”
He withdrew the roll of notes and handed them to me. I flicked through them and then stashed the cash in my inside pocket.
“£500? You owe me another two grand, sonny.”
“No I don’t. I borrowed £2,000. No more.”
“The rest is interest, Kev. You know what interest is, yes?” He looked confused, and I laughed at him. I patted his arm and made for the door. “Two grand, Kevin. By the end of next week. I guess I don’t need to tell you what happens if you don’t have it?” He still looked confused. “I get angry,” I said. “You don’t want to see me angry, do you? I’ll be in touch.” I opened the front door and stepped into the darkened street.
His voice halted me midway up the drive.
“I never agreed to that,” he said from the doorway.
“You didn’t check the small print,” I laughed.
“We didn’t sign a contract, Mr Broadbent, so technically I don’t have to pay you back a thing.”
My mouth dropped open.
“You say you lent me money, I say what money. See?” Kevin smiled back. “But I am not a thief, Mr Broadbent.”
I found my voice enough for a, “Who the hell do you think you…”
“I will pay you back the £500 I owe you on Monday. Have a good weekend.” And he shut the door.
I didn’t have a clue what to do, and that made it all the more infuriating. His nerve! A part of me wanted to go back and kick Kevin’s ass, and I calmed that part of me, quenched the fire at my heart. The police didn’t like people like me. I had to be careful, and I was always careful.
I went home and simmered. Cooked some pasta. Ate it. Had a think. Kevin needed to know I was not to be messed with. He probably thought he could handle me. But I could be nasty. I had been often enough.
I’d make him see.
At midnight I returned to his house. The security light turned on as I walked up the drive to his car, but I didn’t care – I’d be quick.
I stuck a note under one wiper: ‘Two grand, or next time it’ll be your face.’ Scrawled in permanent marker. Perhaps it’d rain, but I didn’t care.
I flicked up the knife in my hand and buried the blade in each of the tires. They hissed and flattened. For good measure I trawled a scratch down the side of the car as I left.
Good, I thought. I smiled and drove away.
I was out most of Monday, visiting other clients, reminding them of their duties, what they owed me. I had no patience for their excuses or their pleas. Almost exclusively middle-aged men, like Kevin. Pussies, the lot of them.
I returned home in a good mood, and found a letter lying on my doormat. I picked it up and frowned.
Mr Broadbent. No address. No stamp. Whoever had sent it had pushed it through my letterbox. I stripped it open and felt my heart shudder like a struck gong.
There was £300 – cash – and also a note. The note. The note I’d left under Kevin’s car wiper before slashing his tires. ‘Two grand, or next time it’ll be your face’, in permanent marker. My writing. Underneath, Kevin had written in extremely neat biro:
‘Mr Broadbent, please find enclosed your remaining money. £500 – £200 for the repairs to my car. We are now quits.’ And then he had signed off with a smiley face.
I crunched the note, sun-red with rage. We are now quits. There was only one explanation: Kevin was a lunatic. Losing his wife and kid in the fire must have pushed him over the edge, maybe given him a taste for masochism. I would go over there and kick his ass.
“How does he know where I live?” I stopped suddenly. None of my clients knew where I lived for obvious reasons. Still, no time to worry about that now. Maybe when I’d got Kevin pissing blood he’d realized I’m not someone to mess with, and then he’d try his very best to forget all about me.
I hadn’t even taken my shoes off and I went out again, adrenaline fermenting, expectation rising. I drove to his house. His car sat on the drive and had inflated tires again. I rang the bell. This time when he answered I put my foot against the doorjamb in case he tried to close me out.
He just stared at me. “Can I help you, Mr. Broadbent?”
I pushed him backwards, following him into the hall and knocking the door closed behind me.
“Think you’re funny, do you?” I snarled at him.
“No. I’ve been told often that I don’t have a sense of humor. Why are you holding me?”
I shoved him and he fell over like a Goddamn fairy. Outside I could hear his little rat of a dog barking.
“I want my money,” I said to him.
“I gave you your money,” he whimpered, holding up his hands to protect his face. “I saw you attack my car so I deducted the bill from that last payment…”
I kicked him in the gut, and he squawked. “I decide what you owe me, not you.” Growled it. Skin hot and prickly. Pulse throbbing behind my eyes.
“Please, Mr Broadbent…”
Rushing in my ears. I kicked him again, harder. Lips pulled back in a sneer. He started to cry, clutching his stomach and rolling on the kitchen floor, spit bubbling out of his mouth. Rat-dog scratched at the back door, yelping for his fallen master. One last kick. Thwump. His scream.
I grinned, panting now. I rolled my shoulders, cricked my neck, looked out into the lounge. I saw his TV, a flat-screen. Expensive. I went in and picked it up under one arm. I crossed to the front door and opened it. Kevin lay moaning at the end of the hall.
I took his TV. “Now we’re quits,” I said.
Turned out I was right. Kevin was a lunatic. But I guess even then it was too late.
The next morning I showered as usual, went into the bedroom in just a towel, chased by tendrils of mist. And that’s when I saw the knife impaled in the dresser. Not only that – it was the penknife I’d used to scratch his car. I certainly hadn’t left it like that.
My blood ran cold. I knew who the culprit was. Kevin, the babbling pansy I’d left curled up and crying on the floor, had broken into my house. And not only that – he’d left me a message whilst I’d been showering in the next room. I hadn’t heard a thing.
There was a note impaled by the knife. I plucked it out with shaking hands and read: ‘Don’t start what you can’t finish. I’ve replaced my TV.’ Signed smiley face.
I was furious, and maybe a little scared, I don’t care to admit. The smiley face kept smiling at me. I scrunched up the note and looked about the room, as if Kevin was still here, hiding, waiting to pounce.
The room was empty. The lunatic had left the building. My heart wouldn’t calm down.
Kevin had cleared a space on the dresser to impale the note, and I noticed now that a photo frame lay face down. I righted it immediately and set it in its rightful position – my son, Charlie, wearing an Arsenal shirt and grinning in the sunshine. This photo had been taken some months back now, before the divorce. I felt sick to think of Kevin holding it, his fingerprints on the glass. Had he held it? Looked at it? Studied my son?
A shiver danced down my spine. I un-scrunched the note and read it again, with the cool air stinging my skin and my head clear of the warm shower mist.‘Don’t start what you can’t finish.’
A threat, definitely. Who the hell does this nut-job think he is? I make the threats!
And: ‘I’ve replaced my TV.’ Smiley face.
His TV was in the boot of my car. I planned to sell it.
“Oh, you bastard.” I ran downstairs, holding the towel at my waist, and threw open the lounge door. The stand stood empty. My TV was gone.
Steal my TV, will you, eh, you dumb bastard? I seethed behind the wheel. My temples throbbed. A car pulled out from a side road making me brake, and I swore and honked the horn. I’d taken ten minutes to dress. Another minute to bring in Kevin’s TV from my boot and set it on the stand in the lounge. Just a little swap? You bugger. You stupid stupid bugger. I pulled up on Kevin’s drive. His car was gone, and for a few moments this outraged me immensely. Until I realized that was probably for the best. Had Kevin been home I would probably have killed him. I’d got out my car with a baseball bat in my hand, after all. Killing him would have put me in a world of shit.
I had decided on just smashing a few windows and perhaps the porch glazing (and to hell with the neighbours) when I heard the dog barking. Rat-dog, tethered in the back garden. Probably heard me pull up. Heard my breathing. Perhaps smelled my rage like vinegar. I went round the back, reaching over and sliding the bolt back across the gate.
Rat-dog was bouncing on the grass, yipping and lapping, all grey-matted fur and eyes too big for its head. I knocked the bat against my thigh, studying the revolting creature. Then I beat it to death, and the yapping stopped.
I’d never felt better. I drove home whistling, washed the blood from the bat (and my hands) and then ate lunch out. I even tipped the waitress. In the afternoon I had a massive argument with Janine. I phoned her up and explained very calmly what a bitch she was, and how I’d never loved her anyway. She started crying at some point, and told me she’d never let me see Charlie again. I said that was fine by me. “Kid’s ugly. He looks like you,” I said. She put the phone down.
Yes, all in all a very good day. It was about 9 o’clock that night when the phone rang. A dark and cloudy night. I thought it’d be Janine.
“Hello?” I said.
“You killed my dog.” Not Janine. The bloody nut-job again. Had probably spent the day crying, holding his dog’s corpse and rocking it.
“I told you I’m not to be messed with, Kevin. Now, about my money…”
“No, I’m not to be messed with.” His voice like that of the Demon in The Exorcist. I actually found it more shocking coming out of Kevin – poor, weak, blubbering Kevin – than out of little Linda Blair. “Turn on your security light,” he said.
“Your security light. Turn it on.”
“Just do it.”
Now I was scared. I was shitting-my-pants scared. I carried the phone to the hall and switched on the light. Sitting on the bonnet of my car, propped up against the windscreen, was a shop mannequin in an Arsenal shirt and a butcher’s knife through its heart.
“You took away my baby,” Kevin said. “Now I’m going to take away yours.”
Janine didn’t answer. I phoned her mobile and then the house phone, driving one handed, pedal to the floor. I rang again and again as I burned through the night streets, and I began to think Kevin had already killed them – that my son and ex-wife were already dead.
On the fourth phone call, Janine picked up.
“Stop phoning me, you bastard,” she said, and her voice had never sounded so good. She hung up before I could speak, and the next time I rang the phone was off the hook. They’re still alive, I told myself. There’s still time.
I looked at my watch. I don’t know why. I had no idea how much of a head start Kevin had on me. He could have phoned me from outside their house. I didn’t doubt he had their address.
I ran a red light and got a horn blare for my trouble. Perhaps I’d pick up a police tail. They’d have to help me then. I’d thought of dialling 911, of course, but dismissed it. The police wouldn’t take a threat like that seriously – they got such reports all the time. They might send a patrol car round in an hour or so, but by then it’d be too late. And I wasn’t going to mention me killing his dog and beating him up and stealing his TV and wrecking his car and fleecing him. Jeez, no wonder he’s pissed! I thought. I didn’t find it funny in the least.
It took me twenty minutes to cross town and reach the cottage Janine shared with Charlie. Kevin’s car was parked outside, scratch down the bodywork a white contrail by the moonlight. I got out, holding the bat, still tinted pink with rat-dog’s blood. I didn’t feel the wind, nor the cold. I felt sick. I felt like a wobbly jelly man.
The front of the house slept in darkness, but the side gate was open. I went round the back, gripping the bat and ready to swing. The back garden was dark with night, though the kitchen light was on. I crept up to the window and peered inside, and nearly uncoiled harmlessly to the ground. My son and ex-wife were tied to two kitchen chairs, both gagged. I gripped the bat tighter, jaw clenched, eyes narrow. I looked for Kevin. He was not in the kitchen.
Charlie and Janine both struggled in their binds. They were both alive. I would save them. I tried the back door. It was unlocked, and I crept my way into the kitchen. Janine and Charlie spotted me, and their eyes, their red and streaming and burning eyes, widened. I put a finger to my lips. Ssssh. I checked the door to the dining room, which was ajar. The room beyond appeared empty.
I approached Janine, and was reaching for her gag when I saw her eyes settle on something over my shoulder and balloon – something or someone.
Instead of turning round and getting a fist in the face – isn’t that what always happened? – I threw myself over the breakfast bar and crashed down on the other side, bringing the bat to bear. Kevin had skulked up behind me and sprayed something into the air – mace, probably – hoping to get my face if I turned. So that’s why my ex-wife and son’s eyes were so red.
I’d thrown myself over the breakfast bar and avoided the irritant, and Kevin lunged after me, through the cloud of mace he’d just sprayed. He roared, his face turning red, and dived over the bar at me. I didn’t have room to wield the bat or swing it. We wrestled, and more mace got sprayed until my own eyes were burning, my face itching.
I pushed him into the fridge and he dropped the spray, howling like a wounded animal. I jabbed him with the bat, my eyes streaming, adrenaline turning my insides into a furnace. I think I caught him in the balls. Kevin stumbled backwards and fell over into the dining room. Finally, I had room to raise the bat, and I stood there wielding it above my head, Charlie and Janine tied in their chairs behind me.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” I screamed, wiping my face. He was just a blur on the carpet. I could barely see. “Goddamn psycho!”
He took something out of his pocket, and I heard Janine moan frantically behind me through her gag. Too small to be a gun. A knife? Possibly – it shone like metal. Anyway, his vision couldn’t be that much better than mine at the moment – he’d given himself a face full of mace too. I fancied my chances with the bat.
It wasn’t a knife. It was a lighter. There was a flash, and suddenly the dining room was bright with flames and a trail was burning along the kitchen floor towards Janine’s feet.
He lost his wife and kid in a house fire a few years back. Poor sap. I remembered my contact’s words, and I knew there and then and with certainty that Kevin hadn’t lost his wife and kid. He’d murdered them. Burned them down in his own house. And why? Because he was crazy, that’s why.
I saw the flames lick Janine’s feet, heard her screams. And then Kevin charged at me. I saw and heard and felt him coming, and I got a good firm swing behind the bat and caught him clean against the side of the head.
He made no sound, merely crashed down behind the breakfast bar and lay still whilst the flames grew around him. I dropped the bat and rushed to Janine’s side. She’d lifted her feet onto the chair as smoke billowed a cloak around her, and the fire nibbled on the chair legs.
I dragged the chair out of the flames and pulled out her gag.
“Take Charlie!” She screamed at me. Yes dear, whatever you say, dear. I almost laughed.
The knife block on the worktop held seven knives, and the first one I pulled had a serrated edge. I hacked through the binds tying Janine to the chair and shouted, “Go! Open the back door!”
I continued to Charlie, sawing through his rope and scooping him in my arms without removing his gag. The ceiling swam with smoke and the flames nested in the cupboards and curled the linoleum. I hopped across the kitchen and followed my ex-wife out the back door and into the fresh air.
I stripped out Charlie’s gag, and he spluttered and coughed and spat and then hugged me without saying a word. And then Janine was there too, and she had her arm around me, and for a moment the three of us crouched there on the grass, holding each other.
I broke away from them and said, “I have to get him.”
And Janine fixed me with eyes like a fortune-teller’s orb. “What?”
“I can’t leave him in there.”
“He tried to kill us!”
Which was true, but I approached the back door anyway, and peered into the smoke and flames because a part of this was my fault – maybe a large part – and perhaps men like me can feel guilt after all. I don’t know. All I do know is that I went back into the kitchen and fully intended to drag him out.
And when I saw the breakfast bar burning like the sun and realized Kevin was already dead and cremated, I felt both relieved and inconsolably sad.