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My Truly, Truly Fair

Down on the farm life is lived by routine, by cycles of growth and decay. Helen works hard. She learns how to be useful with a pestle and mortar. She learns about measurements and combinations. Helen works hard at the business of living and through hard work she thrives. She blossoms. It helps that the reward for her hard work can slide into her veins and take away the drudgery of this modern farming life. The good doctor makes the world go round and for Helen, anyone is a friend if they supply free gear.

She finds herself coming to terms with the strange, thin man in the other cell. Most of the time she can make herself believe that they have something in common, that they are both prisoners, that he is not so bad. When he is in a good mood she likes his company. He is educated. Arbnor Jasari can be cultured. His conversation has range and depth, although the world that he inhabits has been warped out of shape, but such weird meanderings are nothing new to Helen. Most of her life has been spent fitting herself into oddly shaped spaces and her new friend has a certain naïve, if deadly, charm. She is by degrees excited and terrified.

"Helen. No, not like that."

The doctor reaches round from behind her and shows her how to tilt the bowl that she is holding so that the mixture is easier to work. She remembers images from a television childhood. Rosy cheeked kids and grandmothers making cakes. She feels the warmth of his skin. His forearm. Breath on her neck. He watches her as she tries to do as he has shown her. It is good. His lips brush her neck. She shivers.

"Very good. I’ll make a real chemist out of you. You see how well we work together."

Helen concentrates on the mixing. It’s like grinding flour and she is the mill wheel turning at the constant urging of the flowing water course that provides life. In the derelict surroundings of Sillick Farm she thinks it appropriate that the work is being done by hand. It’s organic, a labour of love. She works on one of the tables set against the wall at the opposite end of the barn to the small kitchen and bathroom. On the tables set in the middle of the room there are four plastic food tubs, each one containing one hundred sachets of Bliss. She and the Doctor have been busy.

To make the time pass more productively the doctor allows her to take an occasional sample from his supply of MDMA. It takes the edge off. She feels a sense of wellbeing out of all proportion to her surroundings and circumstance.

This morning, Saturday, she thinks, they took a walk around the courtyard. Exercise hour. Clockwise. She thinks she has been here for a week, but her appreciation of time down here on the farm is a little out of joint. She thinks about running away every time he lets her out of the workhouse, but it’s a fleeting consideration. She has felt the hard steel of the Beretta tucked into the back of his jeans. She has felt the caress of the needle. She makes a choice every morning.

"Okay, that’s enough. Take it over to the other table and we’ll take a break."

Helen carefully wipes the serving spoon that she has been using to blend the various ingredients of the good doctor's happy cake mix on a sheet of kitchen roll. She carries the bowl to the table and then joins the doctor in the kitchen. He spoons instant coffee into two chipped brown mugs and waits for the kettle to boil.

"Please, sit down."

"It's okay, Arbnor, I'll stand. You've had me sitting at the workbench all morning. I need to stretch my legs."

"Whatever".

The automatic switch on the kettle flicks off and water bubbles out of the spout. He always overfills. He lets the water settle down and then pours. Two spoons of sugar. "I’ve been thinking. You work very well. I’m happy you’re here, so long as you remain a good girl. I’m going to make you an offer."

When the doctor is in a good mood he makes offers. Helen thinks that he is sincere when he says he needs a friend. She is coming round to the idea.

"I can get you off smack. If you really want to I can do this. Not now, though. We have to stay calm. There’s too much work to do."

Getting off smack is the last thing Helen wants to thinks about right now. That is something you have be committed about. Jesus. That is something really scary. Humour him. Say the things he wants to hear.

"I don't know. I mean, yes, but the come down is shit. Sort of freaks me, you know."

The coffee burns the inside of her mouth.

He smiles. It’s a start. "Let’s go outside. It’s a nice day and I want to breathe fresh air."

Taking their coffee with them Arbnor Jasari and Helen, his Girl Friday, unlock the doors and venture out into the bright sunshine of a clear Spring day. There is a low wall at one end of the courtyard where they can sit. They squint up at the sky. The house martins have been joined in flight by swallows. The eaves of the old barns are spattered with droplets of mud where the birds are building nests. New life.

The two of them bathe in the fresh warmth of the day. Eyelids close and burn orange. They can hear the sound of a tractor in the distance. Gulls surge up into the bright blue sky and drop down again to feed on the bugs and worms turned up by the plough. Through cracks in the concrete floor of the courtyard Campion has sprouted and is in early bloom. Cuckoo-flower. Helen soaks it all in. She will say anything so long as it guarantees her another moment like this.

The doctor watches her as she leans her head back and opens herself up to the sun. He too feels the warmth of a new growing season in his bones. He sighs and allows his otherwise taut and watchful soul to appreciate this simple moment of happiness. He is growing to like this girl. Affection. He thinks about basic lessons in physiognomy. Light penetrates the skull, triggering physical reactions. Mating instincts. For the first time since he spiked the coffee of his guards in Albania he feels as though he might be able to relax.

"I mean what I say. When all this is done I can help you. We’re good together. Maybe we can be partners. I make good stuff, no? For you. All I ask is a little kindness in return. No more shit. I’ve had it with arses making money out of me."

The tone of his voice, the subtle foreignness of it fascinates Helen. She is growing to love his oddly cultured yet innocent use of the English language. She corrects his latest minor transgression. "Arseholes".

"Arseholes? That sounds much better." He laughs out loud. "Next time I see him I’ll tell Jock he is an arsehole. When we have enough money."

Helen laughs too. They infect each other. Out here in the sunshine she feels alive. The bastards who brought her here will have to pay, on that she is settled, and the doctor seems like her best bet, at the moment. He has dealt with real mafia hoods already. Between the two of them they ought to be able to deal with the Three Stooges.

Dates and days merge in Helen's mind, but something about the way the sky twists above her makes her start to count. Clouds in high wispy layers. It must be eight, nine days since she accepted a ride in the Jesus bus. That definitely makes it Saturday morning. The seventh. Tomorrow is Easter Sunday. Chocolate. She feels a need, a craving.

"Arbnor, what sort of stuff have you got in the house? Food and stuff?"

"Hm?" He breaks away from thoughts about Jock's arsehole. "Oh, you know tins, a few bits in the freezer, the usual stuff. Camping rations. Why?"

"Just a thought. Tomorrow. Easter Sunday. Chocolate."

"Easter? Ah, yes. I know about this. Back home my family is Muslim. Me, I gave that up. Too much trouble. The devout know too many truths. Easter. Chocolate. Yeah, I have chocolate. Do you want some now?"

Helen shakes her head. "Tomorrow. A treat. A day of rest and chocolate."

Arbnor Jasari moves a little closer to her and brushes a stray lock of hair from her eyes. "Okay. I tell you what. We’ll bag up this afternoon, maybe have a drink and a smoke tonight. Tomorrow I’ll bring chocolate and the television from the farm house. There’s even a DVD player and I have a couple of films. Chocolate, television and films all day. Like big kids. A deal?"

Helen leans forward and kisses her doctor softly on the lips. Patient familiarity. Breaking the rules. "Doctor Jasari, it's a fucking deal."

The brothers McCoist go their separate ways for a couple of days. Jock has Ken tour the property developments, giving him a chance to don a hard hat to go with his hard man image. Fluorescent yellow is not Ken's colour but he perseveres. The site foremen can run rings round him when it comes to projects and schedules but they choose not to. There is an implied threat, covert but ever present. Jock pays well and expects results. The converted farm buildings are starting to look really good.

As the work progresses, as tiles are grouted and kitchen units are fitted, Ken edges ever closer to his bar in Ibiza. He has been looking through travel brochures and has decided that the rave capital of Europe offers his best bet. He can always find work there if things are a little slow behind the taps. Pretty girls and spotty boys. Senoritas and long dark nights. Cold beer and tapas. He is going to call his bar The Straw Donkey, a paean to millions of package trips and the souvenirs that litter lofts throughout his homeland.

Ken's brother is less inclined to dream of foreign shores. The closing down of the Cascarino Empire means that an end is coming, but Davie has never been quite sure whether his glass is half full or half empty. Sometimes, when he listens to Ken when they're alone in the flat above Snuggle's, he thinks that maybe he should broaden his horizons, but he knows in his heart that his crock of gold lies at the end of the lane, not at the end of the rainbow. With his pay-off from Jock he is going home. He has a couple of debts to pay, a couple of issues to resolve from the old days, but once everything is sorted he wants nothing more than a season ticket to Ibrox, and, anyway, things have a habit of turning down at the corners when Ken gets involved.

For Davie the round of check-ups at bars and the odd meeting with Jock’s business contacts moves him that little bit closer to the streets of Glasgow. As much as he will miss his brother, he is convinced that East Kilbride will cure the darkness that he feels in his soul.

He collects a little cash here and there. He delivers a little weed and a few pills. The firm supplies cocaine but has for a fee relinquished its monopoly on heroin. Part of Jock's handover. Saturday morning keeps the wheels greased. MacDonalds at Roundswell and envelopes for a couple of boys who wear blue on duty. A fair exchange. Everything stays sweet.

Saturday afternoon finds Maggie at the club. She inspects the bar, checks table layouts and reservations, and spends an hour with chef. There is a problem with the salmon starter for tonight's dinner. There’s not enough to go round, an order from the supplier fouled up, so they decide to offer a choice. Pâté or salmon mousse. Maggie wants everything in its place before the start of the evening. With Leona off, Maggie will have to manage the back stage area. Keeping costs down. This season is all about maximising revenue and profit.

Just after three the phone rings and Maggie takes it in the bar. It’s Billy. She transfers the call to her office. She can hear the rumble of tyres on tarmac and wind funnelling around glass. She sits at her desk.

"Hi, Billy, that's better. Won't be disturbed in here. Are you in the car, love? What can I do for you?"

"Yeah, running some errands, but it’s okay, I’m on hands free. Just thought I'd say hello. Make sure everything's okay after Wednesday."

Maggie holds the phone under her chin and starts to make a daisy chain out of paper clips. "Wednesday? Oh, yes, everything's fine."

"Good. Only I was worried, you know, about that kid. What you said. Slapping his face and that."

Eight clips in the chain. "There's no need, love. Jock has sorted it."

"And Jock?"

Maggie laughs. "No need to worry about that either. Hard Paddington stares. Cold silences. Poor lamb has had the works. He hasn't been out for two days. The brothers Grim are holding the fort. Do you know, he even made me lunch yesterday. Proper lunch. Putanesca. Spaghetti with olives and capers."

Billy hits the breaks and swears. The hands free set in his car means Maggie gets full blast. "Sorry, Mags, sorry. I'm not swearing at your lunch. Bloody lorry pulled out. Yeah, sounds great. Haven't had tart's spaghetti for ages. I didn't mean to cause you and Jock any trouble, you know."

"What? Nothing to do with you. I've told him a thousand times. Not in the club. He's only got himself to blame. Anyway, it's all done and dusted. By the time we wake up tomorrow I'll have forgiven him. Have already, actually, but I sort of forgot to tell him, if you know what I mean. It's not often I get the chance to be Lady Muck."

She gives up on the daisy chain at twenty paper clips. Displacement activity. Maggie picks up a ball point pen and starts to doodle three dimensional boxes on a scratch pad. Billy is glad that Maggie can’t see the colour of his cheeks.

"Yeah. Know what you mean."

There is a pause. Billy still has not worked out how to broach the subject of Ted Line.

"You still there love?"

"Sorry Mags, bit of traffic. There's one other thing."

"Go on".

"Ted. Got a bit confused on Wednesday. Jock had to have a word. Has he mentioned it?"

Jock has not mentioned it and now it’s Maggie's turn to stop and think. Is Ted becoming a liability? "How do you mean?"

Billy clears his throat. "Seemed to think Jock was doing a bit of the old business. I told him to forget it, but I don't think Ted likes Jock very much at the moment. Just wanted to warn you in case he says something out of line."

Ted will have to go. Maggie's charity doesn’t extend to those suffering alcoholic dementia. "Darling, Ted is always saying things that are out of line. I'll bear it in mind."

Another pause.

"Billy. About the kid on Wednesday. I know you worry about it and I'm grateful, I really am, but can you leave it alone. Jock is sorting it out."

The sound in her head, the sound of her own voice, is wrong. Maggie hates telling Billy to shut his eyes to the obvious. She likes him. He has been a friend for some years now. She makes a choice. "Look, can I trust you?"

Billy sounds slightly aggrieved. "Of course, Mags, you know you can".

"Okay. You and I both know Jock used to be into some heavy shit. But he's stopped most of that. Yeah, there's still some stuff hanging around. Dope. A few girls. But all that's changing. By the end of the summer it'll all be closed down. Everything. The farms will be sold and the money will be in the bank." Maggie takes a deep breath. "Even Snuggle's, Billy. I'm packing the club in as well. Jock and me, well, we're heading off to sunnier climes. One more season here for both of us, cash in our chips and Mercia here we come. That's why the kid was here. Closure, Billy. It had to be done. Jock has explained it all to me. I hated the kid being here, but needs must."

Silence. Billy doesn’t know what to say. Maggie has dropped a bomb shell. He sees brake lights in front of him but the colour red does not compute. He has to slam on his own brakes at the last minute. Cones. Speed restrictions. Cameras. "Fuck!"

"Jesus, Billy, are you alright?"

A moment. Deathly. Images flash up in Maggie's head, images of burning fuel and twisted metal. But there is no sound of squealing tyres, no rending of metal.

"Mags, sorry. That's all I seem to be saying this afternoon. Lost it there for a moment."

"It's me who's sorry, love. I wanted to tell you to your face. You do know you'll always be welcome for a holiday, don't you?"

Billy looks for a way out of the conversation. He feels as though a part of him is dying. Shrivelling up. He could cut the phone and blame it on a loss of signal, but he doesn’t. Billy tries to stay calm, straining the boundaries of his own voice now. Take it like a man.

"Sure. Sure. Look, Mags, can we talk about this another time. Road works. Cop car up ahead. I hope everything works out. We'll talk next time I'm in the club, okay. Got to go. See you soon."

Maggie starts to reply but the line drops. "See you…"

The ball point pen nib rips through two layers of paper.

Sat at home in the conservatory Jock watches the horse racing with the sound turned off. He is on his mobile and Davie confirms that Shaun has had a good night at Caligula's. Five hundred in his pocket. Fifty sachets palmed. Word getting round. It all sounds highly promising. Jock checks his watch. Four o'clock. The flowers should have arrived.

"Davie, got to go, pal. Expecting another call." He hits the red button.

The last two days have been hell on earth. He’s cooked for the woman, for Christ's sake, pleading guilty, under house arrest, but he loves her and he wants to make amends. He told her that he was sorting out some trouble, the old business, kids trying to muscle in. Shaun keeps watch. Jock thinks that Maggie bought it.

One more summer. Six months. Sell everything. The units, the house, the club, the drugs. Take the money and run. On the wicker coffee table in front of the television is a brochure from a Spanish property development company, which is open at a page showing glossy pictures of a villa with a pool. On their last trip over he and Maggie bought one just like it off plan. It should have been ready in May, but now the Spanish developers are saying August. Jock reckons that by the time they have cleared the decks, maybe in October, it should be complete. Even if it’s not, they will have enough money to move out there, rent somewhere and give the bloody builders hell.

Thinking about a new life helps to relieve the tension. He wants to put everything cold and miserable behind him. Building sites. Johns. Junkies. He wants to wake up with Maggie where the sun shines every day. He wants to make love to her by the pool on balmy summer nights. One more hit. One more deal is all it will take. The combined rewards from all of their hard work will let them live like kings and queens.

He turns the sound up and watches the four-twenty from Haydock. He has forty on the nose. Red Rose Amigo to win. The house phone rings. Jock is up and out of his chair like greased lightning.

"Hello?"

Maggie’s voice is soft and gentle, and Jock knows that the worst is over. "Hello, darling. They're beautiful. Thank you."

The release of tension in his shoulders is patently visible. "I'm really sorry, pet".

"I know. And I do know you're working for our future, love. Thank you. What a lucky girl I am."

"No, Mags. I'm the lucky one. Shall I come in tonight?"

"Yeah. Forgive and forget. See you later, love. Thanks again. Bye."

"Bye".

Jock gets back in to the conservatory just in time to see Red Rose Amigo win by a short head at three to one. That makes twenty one red roses in all.

The reality that underpinned her tutor's words hits home for Leona when she wakes up on Saturday morning and looks in the mirror. She has dark rings under her eyes from too many late nights under bright lights. She got home at three in the morning after finishing the show at Snuggle's, wrapping everything up and spending a gorgeous hour with her pet bar tender in the front seat of his Fiesta.

Her parents slept peacefully through Leona's long goodbye on the doorstep. They sleep through everything including, as far as Leona can tell, their waking hours, as though they are both simply waiting out the days until they die. They appear to have settled for their lot and put their hopes and ambitions in a shoebox under the bed. It’s all a waste of time. There is no point in saving for a rainy day in Devon, unless you want enter into bankruptcy.

So far this week Leona has hit the sack after two o'clock in the morning three times already. She has exams in six weeks and London depends on her grades. She starts to feel uneasy. Her body is still growing and maturing and she drinks too often. She smokes as well, although at present this is under control. Two or three a day. The face in the mirror is telling her to get a grip. Her tutor was right. She looks for smoker's pucker wrinkles.

She was called into her tutor’s office on Friday afternoon after her last lecture. She is supposed to use free time like this for library study, but on a Fridays she usually goes home and tries to grab an hour or two in bed before the night shift begins. Yesterday she spent an hour being told in no uncertain terms that unless she reined-in her extra-curricular activities she would fail.

The possibility of failure is not one that Leona wishes to contemplate, bringing with it the prospect of a dizzying career at window two of the drive-thru obesity factory; that or Snuggle's ad infinitum. Resolve. She tells herself to try harder, tells herself that this is real life in a world full of opportunities. Falling at the first hurdle is not an option. The face in the mirror brightens. Leona has an innate ability to find the brightness even when the sun is obscured by clouds. When she is pissed-off her face darkens like a wet Wednesday but when she smiles she can light up a room.

First things first. She needs a cup of tea and some chocolate biscuits for breakfast. The television in the living room is tuned to Sky Sports. Breaking football news. Her father is living the dream. His Saturday afternoon exercise regime is kettle, fridge, armchair. Circuit training for the morbidly comatose. Leona tells him to sod-off when he calls out and asks her to make him a bacon sandwich.

Back in her room she gets an overnight bag down from the top of her wardrobe and selects a range of tops, skirts, dresses, undies and shoes. Makeup goes in next. She applies the minimum amount of slap to get her through to the afternoon and remembers, having finished the last of the biscuits, to brush her teeth. The toothbrush goes in as well.

Cash. Maggie gave her a birthday bonus as she was leaving the club on Friday night and Leona has a hundred in her purse. She puts forty away in her dressing table drawer, a little something to add to her savings for her new life in London, and leaves the rest in her purse for the coming celebration. If she plays her cards right, if both she and Bex pout and pirouette, most of it will still be there in the morning.

She has reached a compromise. She will try harder, but not until Monday. This is the weekend and it’s always better to make resolutions on a Monday. Leona calls her boyfriend on her mobile and he promises to come round and give her a lift. He will be there in half an hour. She takes her bag downstairs and dumps it in the hallway before joining her father in the living room. One of the curtains is drawn to keep the brightness of the late morning sun off the television screen. A recently retired footballer is telling her Dad that Manchester United must push up and pressurise their opponents today if they are going to keep their title ambitions on track. Manchester United, it would appear, must try harder too.

"Anything I can get you before I go?" she asks.

Her father is silent. Concentrating. It takes real effort to summon up the answer. "Cup of tea would be nice".

As Leona walks across the twenty-year-old paisley patterned carpet to the kitchen she says, "I'm leaving home today. Joining the circus. I've always wanted to work with lions."

There is just the faintest flicker of a smile on her father’s face. It is a reaction. She wants more but she has concluded that the muscles in her father's face have wasted away. She sometimes daydreams that he has a disease that is gradually destroying his motor neurone system. The happiness of the dream is fleeting. She is coming to terms with the fact that he is just a grumpy old sod.

From the kitchen. "I won't be back tonight, remember. Staying with a friend. Bex. From the club. Try and remember to tell Mum when she gets back from work."

Silence. She makes tea in the cup and drops the teaspoon in the already crowded sink. The linoleum floor covering is rolling back from the kitchen cupboards. On the wall opposite the door, surrounded by cracked beige tiles, an old Rayburn back-burner is choked with winter ash. Her Father will be in a foul mood when her Mum gets home. The last of the milk has been poured into his tea.

"Thanks". Mumbled. The pundits have moved on to Aston Villa's chances against Liverpool, which are poor, it would seem. Leona files her nails, filling time with the sound of voices in stereo on the flat panel LCD television and the rasp of glass paper on her cuticles. Everything else is falling apart, everything else needs a handier man than her father, but the television is state of the art and digital. It’s all a question of priorities.

A knock at the door.

"I'm off. See you in the morning, Dad."

She leaves him with his thirty-two inch view of the world, picks up her bag and heads out into the bright blue sun-stream of possibilities. As she opens the door she thinks she hears him speak.

"Take care. Have a nice time, love".

The door slams half way through the longest sentence that he has uttered in the last hour.

At the regular morning briefing Sergeant Miller runs through the usual range of operations for the oncoming day shift. Barnstaple Town are playing at home against Frome, a top of the table clash in the Western League Premier Division. To describe the matter in hand as crowd control would, in Liverpool or London, be worth a laugh, but the boys in blue prefer this duty to patrolling the high street and shopping precincts in the town centre. There is far more trouble associated with retail therapy in North Devon's regional capital than there is with football. The combination of fat wage packets and all day drinking in town centre pubs makes Boutport Street particularly hairy as the day draws down.

He concludes with a notice about missing kids. "Details are on file and you should all study them before going out on patrol. In particular, one of the workers at Fourways drop-in centre has reported that a number of regulars, both male and female, haven't been seen for over a week. They've probably buggered-off somewhere more interesting, it being Easter weekend and all, but if you do come across them have a word. It's logged and you know the drill. That's it. Have a good one."

The officers file out of the room, chatting in groups and preparing for another day on the streets. On the way out the Sergeant collars a couple of bobbies rostered for one of the mobile patrols.

"A little job for you when you get chance. This bloke at the drop-in centre reckons that one of his customers has seen a painted van picking up kids late at night. Could be something and nothing, but he did give us a partial registration. The vehicle check shows the van as being registered to the Jehovah's Brigade. Some sort of Christian group. Preaching on the streets. You know the sort of thing. They've got a place out on Westacott Road, down near Tesco. Might be worth a nose."

Raised eyebrows. Saving the great unwashed. One of the constables makes a note of the road name. "How urgent?"

The Sergeant is already distracted. He is due in the control room this afternoon but thinks he can swing it to get to the match. "If you get chance. I don't suppose the God Squad are bumping-off sinners. See how it goes."

"Okay, Sarge. Will do."

A silver Ford Mondeo pulls in to the deserted weekend car park of the Traveller's Inn at Roundswell services. The car has new plates, although it shows the typically mud-slung signs of a substantial journey. On the windscreen there is a branded tax disk holder. AirCars. On hire. A Mondeo in a cheap hotel's car park. A simple statement. A travelling man. The only odd thing about it is the day. Mondeo drivers tend to go home on a Friday night.

The driver of the car gets out, opens the rear passenger door and takes two sports bags from the back seat. He unhooks a suit jacket from the rear grab handle and slips it on. Picking up the bags, he walks into the reception area and finds it deserted, but there is the sound of a television playing in an office at the back of the reception area. A door with a mirror strip window slides back and a young woman walks to the front desk, smiling. Uniformed. Blue. Attractive in her pony-tailed neatness..

"Hello sir, can I help?"

Her smile is genuine. The man at the desk is tall and tanned, well dressed and well groomed. He has thick black hair that would be unkempt and full of waves were it not kept immaculately short. He is clean shaven and dark eyed. She likes what she sees. He looks fit and lean. Hard, mid-thirties, so unlike most of the salesmen and shop fitters who clamber out of their cars and vans reeking of cheap cologne or cigarette smoke.

He returns her smile. "Yes. I'd like to take a room. For ten days if that's possible."

Most people stay for a night. You get weekenders, the odd romance, even the occasional, furtive day booking, but rarely ten nights. It seems an odd number. "Oh, well, I'll have to check. We get pretty busy during the week. Smoking or non-smoking?"

"Non-smoking, please."

The receptionist sits at the desk and hits the space bar on her computer. The screen saver disappears and she checks bookings. "You're in luck. Sort of. I can put you in a smoking room on the first floor."

He frowns for a moment. "I'd really appreciate a non-smoking room on the ground floor if at all possible. I can't stand the smell of other people's stale cigarette smoke and I'm not very good with heights. Even looking out of an upstairs window makes me feel a bit queasy. Couldn't you do something? The last place I tried was fully booked next week."

The smile returns. Eye contact. The receptionist can feel herself blushing. Strictly speaking it’s against company policy, although these sort of requests come across the desk often enough. She hesitates, swimming in his unblinking gaze. A mouse click. Then another. Moving data. She looks up and says, "Seeing as it's such a long stay I'm sure I can work something out."

They both relax. In the centrally heated lobby she can feel herself starting to glow. Data re-organised. "There, all done. Room nine. At the end of the hall. Turn left through those double doors." Now to the business part of the transaction. "How will you be settling your bill?"

He reaches into his inside jacket pocket for his wallet. "Do you take Amex?"

"We do. I can take an imprint now and you can pay when you leave or, if you want, you can settle the bill up front. We do have broadband in the rooms but you pay for that using the phone and your credit card. You get the weekend discount rate for next weekend, but unfortunately you have to stay Friday night to qualify so it's the full rate for this weekend."

"Yeah, that's fine. I'll pay now. Saves any hassle later on."

He hands her his American Express card and she puts it into the card reader. First impressions. A gold card to go with his golden tan. Rafal Petrov. An expiry date two years hence. His name sounds foreign as she rolls it around her tongue, although he speaks without any accent. Metropolitan. He is certainly not a local man.

"If you could just enter your pin number, Mister Petrov".

He keys in the four digit code and presses the green button. The display on the reader confirms the transaction and a printer on a desk behind the receptionist churns out two copies of his invoice. The receptionist staples the charge card receipt to one copy and hands it to her guest.

"There you are, Sir".

"Thanks".

The moment of connection is ending but she wants it to carry on. She wants to know more about him. Stock question number one. "Are you here on holiday?"

He bends to pick up his bags and replies as he straightens. "Not really. I have some business to attend to in Bideford next week. But I do hope to see something of the countryside at the weekends. Through there and turn left?" he nods in the direction of the white swing doors to the right of the reception desk.

"Yes, last door on the left. Facing the car park. If you need tea or coffee, anything, just ask at reception. Enjoy your stay."

He leaves her with another broad smile. "I'm sure I will. Thank you."

Rafal Petrov, known to family and friends as Alex Berisa, locks the door after he has entered the room and hooks up the security chain. He rolls up a small piece of toilet paper and plugs the spy glass in the door. Then he checks the room. Standard fare. The bath is too small and shallow to lie out in. The window is double glazed and has security catches to prevent it opening more than six inches. He inspects the mechanism, but there is no obvious release. Cross head screws. He rummages in one of the sports bags and pulls out a small black case, which he opens. He takes out a screwdriver and makes sure that it fits the screw heads.

Satisfied that the room is safe and clean, he unpacks the other bag, putting jeans, underwear and tee-shirts in drawers. He unfolds five or six shirts and hangs them up with his suit in the wardrobe. The kettle sings and he makes himself a cup of black coffee. Stripping down to his boxer shorts, Alex takes the coffee into the bathroom and fires up the shower, testing the water until he can feel the heat stinging his skin. The bathroom fan kicks-in as the mirror steams up.

After ten minutes under the jet stream of the electric shower, Alex dries himself, wraps a towel around his waist and returns to the bedroom. The sports bag with the screwdriver case is on the bed. He empties it. Black combats. Black jumpers. Gloves. A Beanie. Black lace up boots. Alex takes a second black case, larger than the one containing the screwdrivers, out of the sports bag.

Alex puts this case on the bed and unzips it. The case is six inches deep and the bottom half is sculpted. It contains a hand gun, a silencer, two clips, magazine loader, cleaning materials and a plastic file of synthetic oil. Tools of the trade. He strips the Glock nine millimetre double action semi-automatic hand gun down in less than a minute, checking each component in turn and reassembles it. The barrel is modified, being half an inch longer than the factory supplied version and threaded. Alex screws the silencer onto this thread and sights, feeling the weight of the loaded pistol in his hand.

He unscrews the silencer and repacks and closes the case. He repacks his working clothes, putting the bag down on the floor. He returns to the bathroom, rinses out his coffee cup, and completes his grooming. He dresses in jeans, a casual shirt and his suit jacket. Time to find out about the local night life.

Alex presses a buzzer on the front reception desk and the young woman comes out to greet him, rather pleased to be of service. He looks even better than he did before. Refreshed. Rough and smooth. Sparkling.

"Hi, sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if there's a supermarket near here? If I'm going to be here for a week I can't keep badgering you for more coffee."

"Of course. Sainsbury's. Back out onto the roundabout and turn left, then right at the next roundabout. You can't miss it."

Her name badge has Julie written on it in black felt tip.

"Great. I was also wondering about nightlife and food. To be honest I don't fancy the Wimpy across the car park. Can you recommend anywhere, Julie?"

First name terms. Familiarity. Julie feels the heat rising again. "Depends what you like. There are some good places in town. The Old Bank's nice and there's a new Italian by the museum. There are some interesting places to eat at Instow. The Schooner at the far end of the promenade is supposed to be good. Anywhere really. There's loads of places for food and there's always the pubs. Millions of them. Take your pick, really."

Alex leans on the reception desk. Julie notices that he has one of his bags with him. Probably putting stuff back in the car. "I wouldn't leave anything in your car. Not around here, Mister Petrov."

"No, I won't. And please call me Rafal."

Anonymity. One of the rules of the game. Singularity. The solitary world of the professional. It’s a shame, Alex thinks, because there are so many pretty girls in the world. Maybe he could break that rule during his stay. He turns on the smile.

"I was thinking of something a bit more lively. Music. That sort of thing."

Sustained eye contact. "Erm, The Monkey. On the old quay, but it's not really your sort of place. Sticky carpets." She makes a face and Alex responds by smiling brightly again. Definitely not his sort of thing. "Or there's a couple of clubs. Caligula and the Red Zone. A lot of the pubs have live bands at the weekend. Oh and there's Snuggle's if you like your Dad's music."

He laughs. "What about Bideford. I've heard it's quaint. The Little White Town. Anything worth sampling there?"

"Actually, it's not bad. Lobster Jack's is busy in the summer. Lots of live sport on satellite, though. O'Hare's on the quay has live music. Irish, obviously and there's a nice club. The Basement. Small and cosy. Like anywhere round here really, loads of pubs."

The main door swings open and an older couple come into the reception area. Julie smiles at them and they nod to her, waiting their turn. Alex turns and acknowledges them too. "Sorry, just getting some directions." He turns back to Julie. "Thanks. You've been a great help. I'll catch you later, hopefully."

As he picks up his bag and heads out to his car, Julie finds herself hoping so too. She is in a great mood. The older couple are staying for a long weekend and have a complaint to make about their shower. Nothing is too much trouble for Julie today.

Alex hits the remote and unlocks the car, throwing the bag onto the front passenger seat. As soon as he is cocooned within metal he flicks open a large road atlas. He turns to the pages covering North Devon and scans the map, familiarising himself with place names and road numbers. As he makes a mental note of his immediate locale he whispers to himself, "Arbnor, my friend, where are you hiding?"

He shuts the map book, puts on his sun glasses and turns the ignition key. Sainsbury's. He has an errand to run. A jar of coffee, muesli bars and shampoo. The stuff of every day lives.

Coffee and toast eaten late on a Saturday morning. Billy is back from a brief trip to the supermarket. Bright sunshine floods into the room. The kitchen door is open and Bex leans against the door frame watching sparrows darting in and out of the shadows. The garden is long and thin, hedged on both sides with an old, mossy path of paving slabs running down the middle from a small patio area by the house. The grass is already in need of a cut. Last year’s failed attempts at container gardening still bear the skeletal proof that Billy does not posses green fingers.

Since the night out on Wednesday the two of them have passed like ships ploughing on through rolling fog banks. Bex has been rising early and putting the hours into her revision, while Billy has risen late and busied himself with songs and shirts. Bex drains her mug of coffee down to the bitters and turns to join her father at the breakfast table.

"I never realised how nocturnal you are. Has it always been like this? Even when you were with Mum?"

Billy yawns and nods. "Yep. She loved it at first. The late nights, bright lights, parties and stuff. Too much stuff. When you came along she changed. Got priorities. I'm not complaining, love. I'm glad she's like she is. You've turned out brilliantly and it's mostly down to your Mum, not me. I don't have many regrets, but I do think back and wonder what things might have been like if I'd seen the light."

Bex sits quietly for a moment. "No point, Dad. We're here now." She pauses. "For a long time I didn't understand. Too many Dads. The boyfriends were a bit of a mystery because Mum always kept them at arms length until she was really sure. Didn't happen very often. Simon was okay, but I was seven by then. I knew enough, though. After they got divorced and I saw Mum in her full, 'bugger it' independence, the one thing that seemed constant were the holiday visits and your phone calls. I used to wait all weekend for the bloody thing to ring. What matters is we're friends."

Hand in hand. Billy lets the moment of self pity break over him. Bex is holding him. He feels free when she is with him. "How is your Mum? This Dave, is he okay?"

Bex looks serious. A frown. "Yeah, actually he is. I think they might be alright. Mum likes him. Says he makes her feel wanted. Just seems a bit…I don't know. Not that there's anything wrong with him, that's not what I mean. It's more like I'm going away for a year and then to Uni. They'll make the place their home. It's like I'll become a visitor. Strange, I suppose. Growing up. Leaving home is suddenly becoming real. Scary and thrilling all at the same time."

Bex smiles at Billy. "You'll like him. He's very laid back. I'm not sure how they got together, really. You know what Mum's like. Hustle, bustle and Puritan work ethic. God knows what she does to candidates when she's interviewing them. She says Oxford is a nightmare. Too many graduates trying to be managers and foreign language students desperate to get into the media."

"So, you going to tell me about your gigs?" she asks after a second or two of quiet contemplation. Bex rises and fetches the cafetiere from the kitchen work surface. She finishes the coffee, pouring herself and her father half a mug each of the bitter black liquid.

"Much the same as it always was". Billy winces slightly as the coffee curls around the back of his tongue. "Well, sort of. Taunton went well. I think I mentioned it was a fundraiser for a breast cancer charity. You know the score, half fee and a donation. The place was packed. Auction fever, chiffon and champers, but it was fun. Foot-tappingly good, actually, and I had a few dances, got a phone number."

Billy looks slightly ashamed of himself.

Bex grins. "Typical".

"Not so good last night. Easter bonnets and knobbly knees. Cabaret for the terminally caravanned. Not one of my favourite things, but you can't argue with people who want to give you money for being a superstar. Anyway, once I get on stage I get into a groove. The club looked quite pretty, in an obvious way. Ceiling star lights glowing to full effect. The usual standards. I finished with a medley from My Fair Lady. Always get the grannies in a sing-a-long. They've asked me back. Once a month throughout the summer."

Bex looks at him over the rim of her mug. "Going to do it?"

"Mmm. Two-fifty a night and near enough to get home."

"Is that good?

"Two-fifty? Average for that sort of place. They'll take a couple of thousand at the bar."

"Plus the odd star struck groupie?"

"No". Billy looks appalled, but not because Bex thinks he is incorrigible. "Have you seen the clientele? Give me a charity ball any day!"

Billy changes the subject. "How's the revision going?"

"Pretty good. Chemistry is a grind but I think I've got the basics. Ditto Physics. Biology's a doddle. I love it. Makes it so much easier. And then there's English. After the other three it's a bit of a relief to get stuck into a bit of literary criticism. I know I should be nervous, but I'm feeling okay. I've got a chance."

Billy sits back and looks at his daughter. How did he and Carol make such a perfect little creature? An 'A' grade student. What amazes Billy is that she knows she is a star pupil but has never allowed herself to become pompous or overbearing. The girl has always wanted to delve about in the guts of things, especially living things. When she was thirteen she set herself a task and has pursued it doggedly ever since. Her pin-ups include an Austrian specialist in elephant pregnancy.

Billy thinks back to when he got home last night. The lights were out and when he looked in on Bex it was like she was eleven years old. She has a habit of lying on her back with her mouth open, and with her long, dark hair splayed across her pillow. Billy always checks her before he turns in. He is stunned by his good fortune, by his darling girl.

Bex clears away the breakfast dishes and then hits the living room, where she sprawls on the sofa and flicks through the Saturday morning delights on the television. She settles for an MTV channel and a magazine. Billy showers, shaves and dresses. Light casual. He has a suit and shirt in a carrier hanging from his bedroom door. At two he takes his leave, heading for Bristol and his particular brand of Saturday night fever. He is leaving early to hit Cribbs and IKEA. He needs some new shirts and another rack for his compact disks, a large number of which are piled on the floor next to the stereo.



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