The visitor was not Findlay’s brother. All thoughts of telling the screws disappeared with the crack of the monster’s knuckles and his dead green stare. The stranger sat in the centre of the three seats facing him.
“Do I know you?” Findlay said.
The man nodded. “No.”
“Right, then,” Findlay sighed. He glanced over at another inmate who was holding his buxom partner’s hands across the low, shiny table. If only Irene still visited.
The stranger had fallen silent. Big fucker. Like Frank. But worse. Younger. Reminded Findlay of the Incredible Hulk midway through transformation. The eyes hadn’t left him, and Findlay began to feel like a hen under a fox’s gaze. He knew now why Marshall — the brother he hadn’t seen in fifteen years — had been so anxious for Findlay to fill out a prison visitor’s form. “Are you from the press or something? I assume you paid Marshall to—”
“How d’you want to die, Findlay Dickson? Peacefully or painfully?”
“Neither,” Findlay tried to say but no sound came out.
His visitor tipped his head to study Findlay. That head — buzz cut dark blond — joined a neck the same width. “I’m Mr Pain. You don’t want me to send you off — to cut you down to size, saw you down to stumps.”
“No,” Findlay said. He shot a look at the prison guard, but the screw was watching the busty bird at the next table. Findlay dragged his own eyes away from her cleavage.
“Who wasted the Pole?” Mr Pain said.
“I don’t know. Honest to G-God.” Findlay swallowed. “I don’t.”
Mr Pain inspected his knuckles — skinned knuckles — shook his head tightly, then met Findlay’s eyes. “Wrong answer.” The gaze wasn’t dead anymore. The eyes glinted.
Findlay jammed a bunched hand to his mouth and gnawed on what little remained of his thumbnail. “I’m sorry,” he said. “What’s… the right ans—”
“The right answer,” Mr Pain said, “is Robert Middleton. And you know that. You know that for a fucking fact.”
“I do?” Findlay said. “I mean, I do.” Findlay’s neck felt the way it did when Irene made him wear a tie to a Job Centre interview. “It was Robert Middleton. Tony Vermill’s d-driver,” Findlay said. “Yes. Definitely him.”
Mr Pain had started to bounce his thighs up and down, like a rugby substitute preparing to spring onto the field. “Vermill and his faggot maggots are trying to squirm away, trying to wriggle free of a murder charge, trying to finger me.”
The man narrowed his eyes and his mouth lost its expression, became a gash. “I’m just a tradesman. I had no beef with the Pole. Vermill just paid me to make… changes. Trim bits off, here and there.”
Findlay choked and tasted vomit.
“That’s my skill. That’s why I’m Mr Pain.” The monster leaned in so close, Findlay could smell his aftershave.
The screw raised his head, interested at last. Mr Pain snapped his fingers to bring Findlay’s eyes back and trap him in that glinting green stare. A bead of ice rolled down from Findlay’s armpit.
“You’re a lucky, lucky man today.”
“Lucky?” Findlay said. The other armpit trickled too.
“You’re in here,” Mr Pain, said, “so I don’t have access to hardware.”
Hardware? Findlay’s bowels slackened.
“I’m not a guy who talks, Findlay Dickson, 26 Northfield Terrace. I act. I deal with people. Know what I’m saying?”
Findlay’s head bobbed on his too tender neck.
“If they ask you who killed the Pole, and you ‘don’t know’ or you have some other wrong answer—”
“Robert Middleton did it.” Findlay’s voice rushed from him. “He murdered Marek Borkowski. I swear it on my life. That bastard killed my friend. My… brilliant friend.” Findlay’s only friend. His eyes stung.
“Better,” Mr Pain pressed his palms onto the table. “But you’re still on my kill list.”
“What?” The heat had gone from Findlay’s lungs. “Why?”
“My fee. Sixteen K. Vermill only paid half. I sawed off a guy’s…” He stopped. “I sawed off body parts with a steak knife for that fucking faggot to watch — fucking hairy fairy, fucking uphill-fucking-gardener, fucking butt munch chocolate punch — and he only paid me half. Nobody short-changes Mr Pain.” His knuckles had gone white. “And lives.”
Were the screws blind? Couldn’t they see this psycho? “That’s terrible,” Findlay said. “He’s a terrible man. But I had nothing to do with him.”
“Funny that.” Mr Pain knitted his fingers and pressed his palms out at Findlay, then laid them flat on the table again. Muscles swelled and his neck thickened. “Since I was told you were bankrolling the whole deal.”
Findlay’s mouth fell open, couldn’t make any words. When they came, he’d turned soprano. “Me? No. I don’t have money. I’m penniless. I’m on the dole. I’d never have got any money. Even if Vermill’s plan worked out, my partner would have got the money.”
“Your partner? Irene Friendship? Your ex partner.”
Findlay whimpered at the look that crossed the young thug’s face. “But she doesn’t have money either. Not now. Because everything went wrong.”
“Shame.” Mr Pain lifted his hands up off the table, to leave two wet handprints, each the size of Findlay’s face. “I hate messing up women.”
Findlay’s eyes filled. “Please. Leave Irene out of this. You want your money? I’ll tell you who has it: Irene’s ex. Frank Friendship. This is all Friendship’s fault. His fault I’m in here. His fault everything went tits up. His fault you didn’t get paid.” Findlay pressed his palms together, praying to any god who would listen. “Please. He’s loaded. Loaded. We’re poor. We’re innocent. Don’t hurt my Irene. Not my Irene. Please. The man you want is Frank Friendship. Frank-fucking-Friendship. And no death would be too painful for that son-of-a-whore.”
His visitor sat back in the seats and grinned. “Fuckin’ A. And where does Frank Friendship hang out, bruv?”
Frank peered down from a first floor window in Balewood House at the white tent they’d erected around the body. Or bodies. Human remains could mean multiple victims.
A capped policeman’s head bobbed into view. Guarded, day and night.
Frank’s task for today would be to sneak a peek inside that police tent.
“Hey, buddy,” a voice croaked from the dishevelled bed twenty feet away at the other side of the room that had once been the nursery in this old mansion.
Frank still couldn’t believe it: Steven Northward, here, for the best sleepover ever.
In Frank’s daydreams as a kid, they’d go camping together — Frank, Steven and the unavoidable Gavin, Steven’s twin. This was better than any daydream: Steven, right here in his room, and no Gavin.
“Tell me my snoring didn’t wake you.”
“Nah,” Frank said and crept back to the bed. The mattress springs bonged. A new mattress — but he could only imagine the stress a pair of heavyweights like him and Steven must be putting on the old bed frame. He pulled the duvet up to so only his head peeked out. “It wasn’t the snoring. I can’t help thinking about the body out there.”
“Another corpse. Another crime,” Steven said.
A murder, a child abduction, and now human remains. What next?
“So, I was snoring?” Steven said.
Frank nodded. “Yeah. But in a nice way. More of a rumble than a snore.” Frank’s synaesthesia had decorated the sound with a blue velvet and he’d drifted off into it like a starship into midnight. “Not like Irene. She pinged.”
“Pinged?” Steven snorted. “Claire clicked,” he said, then laughed. “Not all the time, thank God.”
Frank laughed at Steven laughing. “Man, I’m the only normal one.”
“’Fraid not, buddy. You snore, too.”
Frank looked away then stared at his friend. “I don’t, do I?”
“Like a helicopter,” Steven said, eyes on the ceiling. Then he turned his face toward Frank’s. “I love it.”
“Pfff,” Frank said. “I knew you were only after me for my chopper.”
Rosy heard another deep, bellowing guffaw from that monster of a man — Steven Northward — then heard her dad laughing too. She punched a fist into her pillow.
“What’s up, babe? Uncomfortable?” Boog said. He laid his dog-eared World War Z across his chest and stroked her face.
“No,” Rosy said, then closed her eyes at the sound of more laughter. “What do you think they’re doing in there?”
Boog shrugged. “Having a laugh, by the sounds of it.”
“What’s Frank thinking? I mean where is his head at? Bringing home a great fat lump of a man.”
Boog said nothing, except with his eyes.
Rosy set his book aside. “You’re not fat,” she said, “you’re cuddly,” then wrapped her arms around her boyfriend’s still ample waist. “And you know what I mean.”
“Being honest?” Boog said. “Not really. I only just met the man, but he seems like a nice guy.”
Rosy shook her head, fell back on the pillow and stared up at the ornate ceiling, the rambling plasterwork ivy and flowers. “I just think Frank would be happier with a lady friend. Like Heidi. Heidi is nuts about him.”
“Rosy? Gender is irrelevant if Frank’s asexual.”
“That man is bisexual. Frank’s vulnerable,” Rosy said. “And naive. I can’t bear the thought of a man like that in there… taking advantage of him.”
Boog rolled across to her and his face blocked the view of the ceiling. “I dare say your dad doesn’t like to think what we’re doing in here.”
Rosy kissed Boog’s perfect nose. “He’ll assume you’re using the air bed.”
“Doubt it.” Boog smiled. “Said he hoped I had plenty of condoms.”
Frank crept past Rosy’s room, stopped off in the kitchens downstairs to arm himself with a mug of tea, then — hair still wet from his shower — headed for the police tent.
“There we go, sarge,” he said, and presented the mug to the policeman. “Black without” — he reached into his pocket and pulled out a packet of sugar and a UHT milk pot — “or with.” He held the rim while the copper grabbed the handle. “I’d have brought coffee too, but I can’t stand the stink.”
“Tea’s great,” the cop said. “Very kind of you, sir.” He looked like an overgrown school kid. A freckled, ginger school kid.
“Drink up,” Frank said and poked a thumb at the tent, “while I take a peek in your Wendy House.”
“Sorry, sir.” The policeman blocked him. “No can do.”
Frank shook his head. “Red tape? Pfff. Disappointing. I didn’t expect a kick in the nuts after a hot mug of Typhoo.”
The guy wasn’t budging.
“Okay, well, you’ll just have to brief me.” Frank folded one arm, held his bearded chin with the other and stared at the cop’s domed black shoes. “What are we looking at here, sarge? Homicide? Or just a Victorian stiff planted for romantic river views?”
“I’m only a constable, not a sergeant,” the cop said, “and I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to discuss the investigation with members of the general public.”
Frank laughed. “General public? Hardly.” He stuck out his hand. “Frank Friendship, SBS. I expect you’ve heard of me?”
That stood for Special Beard Squad, but Frank didn’t elaborate. “I investigated the Marek Borkowski actual murder case at the end of the year, and I’ll be testifying later this year to an actual judge in an actual court-approved witness box. I also traced Peter MacDonald — that’s Boy M to you, Pork Chop. I had him positively ID’d in Buchanan Bus Station, when the rest of the force had its pants around its ankles and its fingers poking through the toilet paper.”
The young policeman rubbed his face, a smile on there. “Those are impressive credentials, sir, but—”
“We can talk in confidence. I won’t be taking badge numbers if you screw up. I’ve worked with rookies before.”
The cop started to shake his head.
“Bear in mind,” Frank said, a finger raised, “if you want a cake to go with that tea, I’m your only option.”
The man frowned.
“That’s right. Without me, you’ll be cakeless.”
“What kind of cake?”
“Please,” Frank said. “I’m SBS. There is no cake you can name that I can’t deliver. If it doesn’t exist on the planet, I’ll bake it, just for you.” He prodded the officer’s chest. “C’mon, Porky. Name your cake, I’ll solve your case, and you can stick your trotters up back home with Mrs Bacon and the piglets.”
“No Chelsea buns?” Frank held his hands to his head. “In a house this size?”
Steven stood on the tiled red floor at the entrance of the Lodge and watched Frank gawp at his benefactor — the old woman with the half-paralysed face.
“You’ll find plenty of fresh croissants and bread rolls in the dining room, Frank,” she said. “And if you speak to Gwen, I’m sure she’ll have Chelsea buns for you tomorrow. Now, how about a good morning?”
“Pfff.” He patted her hair, then stepped fully inside and hugged her. “Mmm. Morning, Mum. You smell pink.”
She shook her head. “Good morning.”
Frank released her.
She beckoned Steven, and rolled her single eye at Frank. “Come on in, Steven.”
He wiped his feet awkwardly and followed Frank.
”Would either of you boys like a cooked breakfast.”
Frank stuck his hand in the air like they were both back at school. “Scrambled eggs,” he said. “Three.”
“Sounds great,” Steven said. Easier to follow Frank’s lead. “Thank you, Mrs Long.”
Yesterday, Steven was facing life alone, his wife — pregnant with another man’s child — gone, and a penniless Frank alienated beyond hope of reconciliation. And this morning here he was, not only waking up in Frank’s bed, but with a Frank transformed into Little Lord Fauntleroy. Big Lord Fauntleroy.
“Dining room’s through here,” Frank said and ushered him into a room twice the size of the lounge in Steven’s own home yet still modest compared to the rooms in Balewood House out there. A table that would seat a dozen had been set with five places, and another table the same size filled most of the bay window: fancy jugs of juices and crystal bowls of fruit slumming it beside cereal boxes. He could smell the butter of those fresh croissants Phyllis had mentioned. And yesterday Steven had thought he’d be the one looking after Frank.
“What’s with the laptop?” Steven said and pointed at the black nylon shoulder bag Frank had set down on a chair.
“I’m gonna use the webcam to record my life coaching clients,” Frank said. “Like with my naughty tips.”
Steven winced and joined his pal at the table of food. “You’re not thinking about doing naked life coaching sessions, Frank, are you?”
“Nah.” Frank had picked up a jug of orange. “It crossed my mind, then I thought it’d be gimmicky.”
“Good thinking, buddy. Gimmicky is the word I was searching for. Very gimmicky.” Steven looked at the bag again. “And of course you wouldn’t post the videos either, would you?”
“Only the interesting ones,” Frank said, “or edited highlights.” He handed Steven a glass brimming with orange juice.
“Wow. That’s a lot of orange, buddy.”
“I gave you a lot ’cos it’s real nice” — he patted Steven’s shoulder, almost making him spill the juice — “and now I’ve saved you, I’m gonna look after you.”
Saved you. Steven didn’t want to dwell on that phrase. “Thanks, buddy.” He managed to sip some juice without sloshing it down his shirt and tie. “Here’s my advice: Don’t record your life coaching sessions. Or if you do, don’t post them online. Don’t even suggest posting them. Those are private conversations — like a doctor-client confidentiality thing.”
Frank gave him a thumbs up. “Gotcha. See? I need you too.”
Saved you. Need you too. What was Steven, then? The world’s fattest rescue kitten? He sighed, then shook his head. He was being overly sensitive, the after-effects of Claire’s unrelenting passive aggression. Besides, it was true. Frank had saved him, and Steven needed his pal.
“You okay?” Frank said.
“Sure,” Steven said. “I’m good.”
“I do the wrong things. Say the wrong things,” Frank said. “It’s my fucked-up brain.”
Steven shook his head, and met Frank’s worried eyes. “Don’t say that about yourself, bud. Your brain isn’t fucked up. I love the way it works. You have an awesome brain.”
Frank smiled then tapped his watch. “I’m gonna make those eggs myself.”
“No, you’re not,” Phyllis said. “You’re going to sit, and get used to sitting.” She pulled a chair out at the dining room table. “And tomorrow, just for you, there’ll be Chelsea buns.”
Frank grinned at Steven. “See how I live? I’m now the other half.”
He was. But what did that make Steven?
Phyllis’s maid — Gwen — showed Rosy and Boog into the dining room. A table with jugs of fruit juices, yoghurt, cereal boxes and plates of cheeses brought back a memory of rainy mornings in a Southport bed and breakfast with Mum and Findlay.
“Morning, baby,” Frank said and got up from a plate full of scrambled egg to hug her. He then tousled Boog’s carefully waxed hair and smelled his hand. “Sticky. Like a toffee apple. We’re just having eggs but they’ll cook you anything you can dream up.”
“Within reason,” Phyllis said.
The we Frank was referring to was clearly only him and his friend Steven. Yuck. And eggs. Yuck. Her dad sat back down beside the man, but Rosy had to turn away when Frank’s hand patted his companion’s thigh.
Boog was looking at her, his eyebrows raised. “Was that a yes, babe?”
“To orange juice?”
“Yes, please. Sorry. My mind was elsewhere.”
Boog poured her a glass and lowered his voice. “I think this is actual freshly squeezed. It’s delicious. And is that caviar?”
“Put your lenses in, Mr Magoo,” Rosy said and smiled. “It’s blackberries.”
Rosy took the juice, used tongs to plate a couple of croissants, then sat in the chair opposite her dad. Frank didn’t even acknowledge her, had his arm across the back of Steven’s chair now.
“Use my Mini until you get a car,” Frank said, and set the key fob down in front of Steven. “Phyllis will let me drive her Aston Martin now, won’t you, Mum?”
Phyllis laughed. “Not a chance. I need my car. And calling me Mum isn’t magical pixie dust.”
Boog sat down opposite Steven with a plate of yoghurt, muesli and the blackberry caviar, his manky World War Z novel obscene on the table linen.
“Okay then, I’ll take the Land Rover,” Frank said.
“No,” Phyllis said, “you won’t. Because Gwen is running an errand later and she’ll need that.”
“You’d best hang onto your car, buddy,” Steven said. The big man pushed the key over to Frank. “I’ll order a taxi.”
Buddy. Everything about him made Rosy’s skin crawl.
Frank pushed the key back at him. “No. You need it more. I’ll hitch a lift in with Phyllis.”
“A lift to where, Dad?” Rosy said. “You’re not going to the cafe, are you? Aren’t we supposed to be helping you renovate the big house?”
“Don’t worry, Rosy, I’ll be back in the afternoon.” He shrugged and smiled. “Sorry, baby. Can’t be helped. I’m a hot-shot now.”
“Hate to disappoint you, hot-shot,” Phyllis said, “but the cafe is running along perfectly without you.”
“Pfff. And so was the Titanic,” Frank said. “I have a nose for icebergs. Besides, now there’s a murder for me to solve.”
“Let’s leave that one to the police,” Phyllis said.
Frank shook his head and laughed. “Leave it to the police. Oh, that’s a good one.”
The corners of Steven’s mouth lifted. That bastard was lapping it all up, having a great time, having a laugh, smug and selfish, a sexual predator, targeting her dad. Rosy’s dad, who deserved some stability, some happiness.
God damn it. Rosy had let Frank down. She’d taken her eye off the ball and let… this happen. She pulled a croissant apart then stared at the pieces, helpless.
Phyllis’s eye was fixed on Frank. “Listen to me: do not interfere.”
“It’s called steering, not interfering.” Frank tapped his nose. “Icebergs. Dead ahead.”