A Story For Sunday: The Luck Of The Devil

The Luck Of The Devil


Toby Richards was sobbing like a scalded child. Begging forgiveness. Whimpering and whining, as usual. He was blindfolded, and naked, face down on Ania Nowak’s four-poster bed. The whip marks on his flabby back and chubby buttocks were still red. Ania had been venomously insulting him for the last hour or so and was getting hoarse. Getting bored.
She stood over him, dressed in black leather, her lipstick blood-red, her blonde hair short-cropped. High-heels accentuating her long muscular legs. She wished the asshole would hurry up and spill his seed so that she could get rid of him and have a drink. She really needed a jolt but Toby was one of those twelve step losers and he’d freak if he smelt a trace of booze on her breath. Especially so early in the morning. As she finished whipping his ass, Ania wondered if she were the higher force that they talked about at his AA meetings, but doubted it.
Still, he was a successful film director and he certainly paid well enough. He was visiting her more and more regularly these days, too and her little nest egg wasn’t so little any more. She turned the whip around, coated the handle in KY jelly and slowly inserted it into Toby’s anus. She blanked out his screams and looked out of her window as a firework exploded and filled the night sky with a cascade of colours. At the same moment, Toby made a familiar, pathetic whining sound. She slowly eased the whip out of his backside and placed it in a black bin liner.
‘Okey dokey?’ she whispered.
Toby grunted.
She went over to the television and switched it on. Sat in front of it watching ‘Lovejoy’ as Toby shuffled off, shame-faced, to the bathroom.
She heard the shower run and Toby scream with pain. Grinned for a moment and then got tired of his whinging. Tried to concentrate on Ian McShane’s latest scam. A few minutes later, Toby came out of the bathroom, dressed quickly in jeans and a hoodie and left, closing the door carefully and as quietly as possible.
Ania went over to the bedside table and saw her money and a packet of white powder. Toby was one of the increasing few of her regular clients who paid in cash these days, which suited her. Her last tax bill had been massive and she typically wondered who actually was screwing her. She walked over to the drinks cabinet and poured a large Jack Daniels. Filled the rest of the glass with Pepsi. Drank it down. Looked at the money. Felt good very quickly. Looked at the money again. Poured another drink. Breakfast of champions.


Trevor’s hot breath appeared and disappeared on the cold windowpane like a spectre. He couldn’t help smiling as he watched his kids make a snowman in the park outside. Sindy, their dog barked at them while his wife Sarah drank coffee from a tartan thermos flask. They waved and headed off across the park.
Trevor Malone felt calm for a moment. Contented. It didn’t last long, though. He looked at his Rolex and his agitation returned. He turned and glared at Bernie.
‘Where is fuck he, then? Answer me that. Where is the tosser? You know, some of us have better things to do, eh?’ said Trevor.
Trevor had been doing his best to keep calm, he really had. But is it was particularly hard there in Bernie’s office, what with the heating being switched off as usual. He had turned up the collar on his Crombie and put his flat cap and leather gloves back on but he was still freezing his nads off.
Big Bernie Carr, on the other hand, had taken off his jacket, loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves. He was knocking back the Evian and dabbing his forehead with a paper towel. Semi circles of sweat around each armpit. Looking like a reject from Miami Vice in his powder blue linen suit and salmon pink shirt.
‘I have no idea where he is, Trev, I’m not my brother’s keeper,’ said Bernie.
‘He needs a keeper, your Wurzel does,’ said Trevor. ‘One with a very big stick and a bigger cage.’
He stamped his feet on the concrete floor.
‘True enough. Monkey Boy’s been a liability for as long as I can remember but family’s family,’ said Bernie. ‘Blood’s thicker than water.’
‘Yeah, but money’s thicker than blood,’ said Trevor. ‘Especially the sort of money we’re talking about.’
Bernie snorted. He walked over to a globe shaped drinks cabinet in the corner of the half-decorated office and opened it up.
‘Too late for a snifter? Or too early?’ he said.
‘Why not,’ said Trevor, ‘it might warm me up.’
Bernie grinned and made himself a gin and tonic. He poured Trevor a double Makers Mark.
‘I take it you won’t be wanting ice,’ he said. Guffawed as he passed the drink to Trevor.
‘You’re a droll fucker, Bernie,’ said Trevor. ‘Always have been. Even at school you were a lippy twat.’
‘Best years of our lives, those, eh?’
He took a long, slow drink.
‘Naw, it was shite,’ said Trevor.
‘Aye, you’re right. Torture. If I had my time over again I’d …’
There was a loud bang against the office door and it slowly creaked open, scraping against the concrete floor.


The doorbell rang and Ania roused herself from her morning nap. She looked through the spyhole. Opened the door.
‘Early as always, kochanie,’ said Ania.
‘Bad habits are hard to break,’ said Tina. She walked into the room with two clinking Waitrose bags filled with wine and plonked them on the table as Ania switched off the television.
‘Tracey Chapman okay for you?’ said Ania, flicking through her CD collection.
‘Fine by me. I’m feeling a little mellow. Just had a snifter in The Tea Clipper.’
Ania looked at her watch. Saw that it was almost noon.
‘Anyone interesting in there?’ said Ania. She took off her leather garb and pulled on a red kimono.
Tina opened a bottle of wine and filled two large glasses.
‘Just the usual boring old farts. Expect for Pablo, of course.’ She licked her lips.
‘I’m surprised he’s still here in London,’ said Ania, frowning. ‘He’s playing with fire hanging around so long. If Boris finds out …’
She ran a finger across her throat.
‘He likes risk, as you know,’ said Tina. ‘That’s part of his appeal. And you know what they say: if you don’t risk you don’t drink champagne.’
‘I’ll stick with the wine, thanks,’ said Ania.
They both collapsed onto her sofa.
‘So, what’s the story? What’s this great news you’re desperate to share with me?’
‘I’ll tell you later,’ said Tina. ‘I need to wind down.’
She leaned over and kissed Ania.
‘Come on, luv,’ she said. ‘Not in the mood?’
‘I’m getting there,’ said Ania with a smirk.
She stood and led Tina over to the bed.
‘I haven’t changed the sheets,’ said Ania. ‘Are you okay with that?’
Tina pushed her down onto the bed.
‘I’ll take that as a yes,’ said Ania.


‘Speak of the devil,’ said Bernie.
Wurzel Carr shuffled into the room. His eyes and nose were red. He was tall, wiry. Had a dishevelled beard and wore a crumpled charity shop tweed suit. Scuffed brogues. He looked like a living Scarecrow. Always had. Hence the nickname.
‘Jesus, Wurzel, you look like shite. Even by your particularly low standards,’ said Trevor.
Wurzel plucked a pin sized roll up from his bottom lip. Smirked.
‘Seen better days, aye,’ he rasped. ‘But haven’t had better nights, I can tell you.’
He winked and collapsed into a leather armchair that was still covered in cellophane. Held out a hand, clicked his fingers.
Bernie frowned and went to the mini-bar and filled a half pint glass with vodka. Handed it to Wurzel, who took a swig. Licked his lips.
‘Breakfast of champions,’ said Trevor.
Wurzel looked him up and down.
‘Pots and kettles, Trev?’ he said.
Trevor looked at the half empty glass of whisky in his hand.
‘When in Rome,’ he said.
Bernie topped up Trevor’s glass.
‘Here’s a bit more spaghetti.’
Trevor sighed as he sat down on the edge of Bernie’s desk.
‘You got the clobber, then?’ he said to Wurzel.
‘Trevor, Trevor. Clever Trevor. Ye of little faith. I’m hurt that you even need to ask me that,’ said Wurzel.
Trevor stood up. Loomed over Wurzel.
‘Well?’
‘Patience is a virtue, Trevor. You should try to be a bit more Zen. It’ll help your blood pressure.’
‘I’ll stick your Zen up your arse and your Ying and Tang after it if you don’t …’
‘It’s Yin and Yang actually. A common …’
‘Wurzel!’ barked Bernie. ‘He got to his feet. ‘Stop pissing about.’
Wurzel licked his ragged moustache.
‘Alright, alright. Hold your arses.’
He carefully put his glass on the floor and unsteadily stood up. Made a show of stretching his muscles.
Trevor started to chew the inside of his cheek.
Wurzel pushed a hand into his jacket inside pocket. Plucked out a small oval shaped package and held it aloft.
‘Ta dah! Viola, cello, banjo, whatever tickles your fancy,’ he said.
‘You sure that’s the real Totenkopfring?’ said Trevor.
‘For sure, Trev. The real deal, the real I am, bona fide …’
He put it on Bernie’s desk. Bernie opened the box to reveal a ring with a skull and crossbones design
‘You know, Himmler gave SS honour rings to lots of members of the Old Guard. How do we know it’s actually his personal skull ring?’ said Trevor.
‘I’ve had it checked out, authenticated,’ said Wurzel.
He handed an envelope to Trevor.
‘All the info’s in there, like.’
‘So, that’s our side of the bargain, Trevor,’ said Bernie. ‘Now it’s your turn’
Trevor picked up his briefcase from the corner of the room and put it on the desk, keeping an eye on the package as he did. He clicked it up and took out two large bundles.
‘There you go,’ he said. He handed on to Bernie and one to Wurzel. ‘Fifty-fifty. Same as usual?’
‘Share and share alike, that’s us,’ said Wurzel.
Trevor picked up the package. Peeled back the gaudy wrapping paper. A grin crawled across his face like a caterpillar. He put it in his briefcase and clicked it shut.
‘Right, I’m off to meet the wife in some twee café over Chiswick. Got to spend the afternoon traipsing around Horrids with her and the kids,’ he said.
‘Going to practice your Russian, eh?’ said Wurzel. He polished off his drink, started flicking though the cash.
‘And don’t I know it,’ said Trevor. ‘No peace for the wicked.’
He put his hands in his coat pockets and pulled out two guns.
‘Still, we all have our own double-cross to bear,’ he said as he blasted Wurzel and Bernie in the face.


Tina wiped the cappuccino froth from her top lip, carefully avoiding smudging her lipstick. She looked longingly out of the crowded café’s window at the glowing womb like pub on the opposite side of the road. Night was quickly melting into day and the street’s flickering Christmas lights were reflected in the wet pavement. Chiswick High Road was bustling. Stressed out shoppers rushed by babbling into smartphones. A drunken Santa pissed against a clamped BMW, a kebab held aloft to the evening drizzle. A black cab skidded onto the pavement and a drunken fat woman with a plastic Christmas tree staggered out of the passenger seat and fell into the gutter.
Tina caught her reflection in the window.
‘God, I look knackered, I really do. Old. Ancient. I wonder if old age is catching?’ she said.
Ania laughed.
Tina looked at Ania Nowak. Tall, blonde, late-twenties and full of herself. She was smirking. A Told you so on the tip of her dainty but sharp tongue.
‘You’re becoming paranoid. Too much of the marching powder up your nose, kochania,’ said Ania.
‘Pots and kettles!’
‘I don’t own a kettle and certainly not a pot,’ said Ania.
‘I’m serious. I even found a grey hair in my comb the other morning and attacked the hair dye so much it took me all day to clean my hands. Made sure I didn’t miss a bit. I really hate that salt and pepper thing, reminds me of my bloody mother. I blame Sebastian, I do. It’s all his fault. He’s put years on me since I married him.’
‘He’s really so bad?’ said Ania.
‘He is! I’ve pretty much reached the end of my tether. I’ve just about had enough of Sebastian ’s obsessions. His rants. His moaning. His petty gripes. The whole grumpy old man act. It was funny once upon a time, when we were sat in La Salsa a few sheets to the wind. Coked up. But since I moved in with him, I realised that he’s actually like that all the time. And the joke isn’t funny anymore, like that bloody awful song he keeps playing. If it’s not his bloody depressing music taste, it’s the crap old comedy DVDs that he plays over and over again, ad infinitum. The look of disapproval on his face when I don’t laugh at the same tired catchphrase that has been repeated over and over again like a stuck record. I never thought I’d crack so quickly,’ she said. ‘Six bloody months and I’m ready to slash my wrists and his throat.’
‘He’s more than twenty years older than you. You can’t expect to like the same things,’ said Ania, her cut-glass accent actually sharp enough to slit Sebastian’s throat. ‘Differences are to be expected. And, you know, kochanie, domestic drudgery isn’t for everyone. It really isn’t you is it? And now you know there are good reasons why it’s not advisable to fraternise with the punters outside the club. What you see isn’t always what you get. Both ways.’
‘Yes, well, I know that now,’ said Tina. ‘Honestly, if I could turn back the clock …’
A big man in a black crombie barged past her and ran out of the café. Started yelling at the drunken Santa Clause.
‘Excuse me would be nice,’ said Tina. She looked down and saw that she’d spilled her coffee over the table cloth. Picked up a couple of napkins to wipe it up.
‘Still, you could have had worse,’ said Ania. ‘Him, for example.’ She sipped her green tea as she watched the fat man start jabbing Santa in the chest, causing father Christmas to puke.
Tina chuckled to herself. Eyes twinkling.
‘Yeah, at least Sebastian is in decent nick for his age. Hung like a donkey, too. But I thought being a rock star’s totty would be a tad more exciting than this.’
‘Former rock star, kochanie,’ purred Ania. ‘Former. That is the operative word. It’s been years since his band had a hit. Though someone told me they could be due for a revival.’
‘Like Dracula,’ said Tina. She winced as Santa Clause head-butted the man in the Crombie, causing him to stagger.
Ania patted Tina’s hand.
‘Let’s be honest. It’s better than working in the club or going back to pickpocketing tourists, eh? Take it step by step. It’ll get easier,’ said Ania.
Tina knew that she was right. Ania was only a few years older than her, in her early thirties but she had been working as a high class escort for over a decade. Acted as if she’d seen it all and probably had. She was, Tina realised, the closest thing to a friend that she had though she really wouldn’t trust Ania as far as she could throw her. She was sure the feeling was mutual.
‘I couldn’t go back to the club, though,’ said Tina.
‘I doubt Boris would let you, darling. He was very hurt when you left. Sebastian was one of his best cash-cows.’
Tina finished her coffee.
‘I need something stronger. Up for a bit of a boozing session?’
‘I really would, darling,’ said Ania. ‘But I’ve a full night of flogging ahead of me.’
Outside, Santa pushed the fat businessman against the window, which shattered, showering the café with broken glass. Ania got to her feet quickly, knocking over the contents of the table behind her. The café was a cacophony of screams and wails. The barista rushed toward the fat man.
‘Are you okay, kochania,’ said Ania. She plucked a tiny shard of glass from her cheek.
‘Yes, I’m fine. In a better state than him anyway,’ she nodded toward the fat businessman. He was flat on his back, red faced. Someone was giving him CPR.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ said Ania. ‘I can’t be bothered with a long drawn out police interview.’
They both collected their belongings. As she picked up her chair, Tina noticed a small, oval shaped parcel on the floor. Pink wrapping paper and a polka-dot bow. She looked around but no one was watching her. Quick as a flash, she slipped it in her jacket pocket. As they stepped out onto the high street, snow fell like confetti.
‘Want to share a cab?’ said Tina. She put up a black umbrella.
‘You don’t live near my way,’ said Ania. Turned up the collar of her overcoat.
‘I’m not going home, am I? Home’s where you go when you’ve nowhere better to go to.’
An ambulance pulled up as they crossed to road to the taxi rank.
‘The Black Jack?’ said Ania.
‘Why not?’ said Tina. ‘It’ll kill time as much as anything.’
‘Why kill time when …’
‘When I can kill Sebastian?’ said Tina. They both burst out laughing.


‘I’m so pissed off,’ said Sarah Malone. ‘I really am. I’m super pissed off.’
She marched up and down in the hospital carpark puffing on a menthol cigarette, her long blonde hair glowing in the wind.
‘I thought you wanted the fat twat dead? Out of the way?’ said Catherine, dumpy and dowdy, nothing like her older sister.
‘Yeah, of course I did, sis. He’s well past his sell-by- date, you know that. But I wanted it done my way. Without questions. If he croaks now, someone might have a nosy into the insurance contracts. And then I’m fucked.’
‘What do the quacks say?’
‘Exhaustion, would you believe. That and boozing and pill popping in the morning.’
‘So, he’s going to be alright?’
‘Yeah, that’s not the point, though. The daft bastard has lost the ring.’
‘The Himmler ring? Didn’t know he’d found it,’ said Catherine. She popped a Trebor mint into her mouth.
‘Yeah, took him long enough but he got it. Even told Wally. And now, as luck would have it, he’s lost it again.’
‘Wally will not be pleased,’ said Catherine.
An ambulance skidded into the car park, narrowly missing Sarah and Catherine.


The band in The Black Jack really were bloody torture. A bunch of saggy BOFs. Some painful, horrible hybrid of blues rock and folk rock. Even the few songs that Tina recognised were mangled into some sort of plodding anonymity. Whisky In The Jar. Born To Run. Brass In Pocket. They all sounded the bloody same. The singer wasn’t bad but he seemed to fancy himself as Jim Morrison and he really was far too old for those leather trousers.
And there was no talent in the place at all. Just a bunch of sweaty middle aged men in supermarket jeans. The singer started moaning about how, if it wasn’t for bad luck he’d have no luck at all. Tell me about it.
She sighed and opened up the box she found in the cafe. Took out the ring. Held it up to the light. Grimaced
‘A very tasty Totenkopfring, that. I used to have one of them,’ said a fat biker who with a pin-size roll up stuck to his bottom lip.’
‘Yeah,’ said Tina ‘What’s one of them when it’s at home?’
‘An honour ring. Sometimes known as a death’s head ring. Himmler dished them out to the SS, back in the day. Bloke over Camden used to knock them out.’
‘Worth much?’ said Tina. She wondered if it was antique. Maybe she could sell it to a collector. Get the fuck out of dodge.
‘Naw, they’re ten a penny. If it was an original, yes but no chance of that.’
Tina finished her drink. Slid the ring over to the biker.
‘There you go mate,’ she said.
She got up and put on her coat, collected her bag.
‘Ta much!’ said the biker. ‘Here, darlin’, any chance of a shag as well?’
He winked.
‘You should be so lucky,’ said Tina.
As she stepped outside, it started to rain, as luck would have it.

Coming Through In Waves – Crime Fiction Inspired By Pink Floyd

COMING THROUGH IN WAVES Edited by T. Fox Dunham.

With a foreword by T. Fox Dunham

Come in Number 51 – Your Time Is UP – dbschlosser, Nobody Home – Joseph S. Walker, Money – Renee Asher Pickup, Heels on the Highway – Linda Slater, Heart Beat, Pig Meat – Kenneth W. Cain, Jugband Blues – C.W. Blackwell, Julia Dream – Morgan Sylvia, Obscured by Clouds – Allan Rozinski, One of these Days – Jim Shaffer, A Saucerful of Secrets – Paul D. Brazill, The Scarecrow – Karen Keeley, Brain Damage – Tom Leins, Have a Cigar – Fraser Massey, Remember a Day – Kurt Reichenbaugh, Careful With that Axe – Mark Slade, Wish You Were Here – Andy Rausch, Arnold Layne – Bill Baber, Lucifer Sam – K.A. Laity, Mother – Kimberly Godwin, Waiting for the Worms – Paul Williams, Hey You – Phil Thomas, On The Run – S.W. Lauden, Childhood’s End – A. B. Patterson.

Coming soon from Gutter Books.

A Story For Sunday: Who Killed Skippy?

Who Killed Skippy?

“Could be worse, could be raining,” said Craig, pretty much as soon as it started pissing down.

A big grin crawled across his flushed face like a caterpillar. He was sniffling away and wiping his runny nose with the sleeve of his leather jacket. Craig had just snorted a sugar bowl full of Colombian marching powder and popped a veritable cornucopia of multi-coloured pills. He was talking ten to the dozen and doing my napper in no end.

I forced a smile, though I was none too pleased. I was getting soaked to the skin in a vandalised cemetery, after spending the last half hour digging a grave while Craig turned himself into a walking pharmaceutical experiment.

“Let’s get on with this,” I said, grabbing the dead kangaroo by its legs. But Craig was away with the fairies again, watching a flock of black birds land on a cluster of graffiti stained gravestones.

“A murder of crows,” said Craig. “That’s the collective noun for crows, you know? A murder.”

Craig was an autodidact, hooked on learning a word a day, as well as many other things.

 “Yes, Craig, I did used to be an English teacher, you know,” I said. My patience was getting frayed. The rain had slipped down the back of my shirt, trickled down my spine and crept into my arse crack.

“They say that crows are harbingers of death, eh, Ordy? Have you ever wondered why they never seem to talk about harbingers of good things?”

I was now inches away from picking up the shovel and twatting Craig, but thankfully he suddenly seemed to break out of his trance. He bent down and grabbed the kangaroo.

“Let’s get a move on, Ordy, eh?” he said. “It’s ‘Super Seventies Special’ at The Grand Hotel tonight. We haven’t got all day, you know?”

***

The Grand Hotel, like a fair amount of its clientele, was all fur coat and no knickers. It had lived up to its name once upon a time and its facade was still pretty impressive but the interior, however, left a lot to be desired. For many years, it had survived as a nightclub which was just about bog standard, with the emphasis on the bog.

Every Thursday, it was ‘Super Seventies Special’ because, unsurprisingly, the music that was played was from the ‘70s and all drinks were 70p. Unfortunately, most of the clientele were knocking on seventy, too, which is why it had the earned its reputation as a ‘grab a granny night.’ Which suited Craig Ferry down to the ground.

Craig was the youngest of the four Ferry boys and he’d been born premature and weak, leading his mother to become a tad overprotective of him. For most of his childhood he hardly left her side and he had, it seemed, developed a bit of an Oedipus complex. Hence, his regular attendance at the ‘Super Seventies Special.’

Which meant that I had to go there too, since, to all intents and purposes, I was Craig’s minder. Not that I was anyway near a tough guy. And not that Craig needed a bodyguard. He was well over six feet with a physique worthy of Mike Tyson.

Craig had been a sickly child, as I said, but when he reached sixteen and his mother died, he transformed himself, in a manner akin to that of Bruce Banner turning into the Incredible Hulk, albeit at a decidedly slower rate.

When he was a kid Craig was almost anorexic but with his mother off the scene he soon became a fast food and beer consuming monster. And that, combined with his scoffing of steroids and frequent trips to the gym, spawned the behemoth that was standing before me gargling cider and blackcurrant and singing along to Sparks’ ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us.’

No, I wasn’t employed by the Ferry family to protect Craig from other people. I was paid to protect him from himself.

***

I’d first met Craig when I was about twelve. We went to different comprehensive schools, so I didn’t have much contact with him but I’d sometimes notice this gangling, scarecrow of a kid hanging around the local betting shop, which was owned by Glyn and Tina Ferry. He always looked lost, sat on the step reading Commando war comics and sipping from a bottle of Lucozade.

One day, during a long hot summer, bored and kicking a ball against wall, I noticed Craig and asked him if he fancied a game of football. I never would have bothered normally, you could tell by the look of him that he’d be rubbish at football, but all my friends were away at Butlins or Pontins, or some other holiday camp, and needs must.

Craig must have been bored himself, I think he’d read the ink from the stack of comics he had next to him, and he said yes.

“Okay,” I’d said. “We’ll do penalties. You’re in goal.”

Craig shuffled over to one side of the garages. One of the walls had the wobbly lined shape of a goal painted on it. He stretched his arms and legs wide.

I put the heavy leather ball on the penalty spot and stepped back for a run.

“Blow a whistle,” I shouted at Craig.

“Eh?”

“A whistle,”

He pursed his lips looking more than a bit girly and I started to giggle.

“No, like this yer big girls blouse,” I said and put my fingers inside my mouth to show him. But before I could start, I heard a shriek.

I jumped, but not as much as Craig. An overweight women wearing a sleeveless, polka dot dress was running toward Craig, her bingo wings flapping.

“Get here now,” she said, clasping him toward a bosom that would be accurately described as ample, before pulling him back to the betting shop.

***

It was now creeping towards the part of the night that I really hated. It was close to midnight and Craig was hammered.

“The pint of no return,” he said. He downed a pint in one and staggered across the sticky carpet to the dance floor.

The Grand was crowded, hot and clammy. Billy Blockbuster, the DJ and quizmaster, was playing smoochy songs back-to-back . As ‘Betcha By Golly Wow’ played, Craig canoodled with a couple of members of the cast of The Golden Girls. He could hardly stand up, and the pensioners were doing all that they could to support him, but it wouldn’t be long before Goliath would crash down.

And, before you could shout ‘Timber!’ he was over, crushing one of the women beneath him. Two bouncers in Crombies, Darren and Dane Greenwood, ran over but when they saw it was Craig they just stepped back and looked at me.

You could hear the screams of the old woman trapped beneath Craig so Billy Blockbuster quickly changed the song to The Jam’s ‘Going Underground’ and pumped up the volume.

“Well?” said Dane.

“Aye,” I said.

Darren went back to the door and Dane bent down and grabbed Craig’s ankles while I took hold of him by his, frankly minging, armpits.

He was a dead weight as we dragged him up, just enough so someone could pull the woman from underneath him. We struggled and turned him on his back. He was in a deep sleep, snogging with Morpheus and snoring like a Kalashnikov.

And then it was the hard part.

***

Craig’s father, Glyn Ferry, was a terrifying man by reputation although he was rarely seen in action. His foot soldiers were his boys. Alanby, William and Dafydd. William did most of the muscle work while Dafydd did the greasing of palms and the like. And Alanby, well, he was known as The Enforcer and he was in prison for murder for most of my childhood but, one day when I was about thirteen, he got out.

I’d just finished my supper, spread cheese on toast, and was sitting with my mam watching Callan. My dad was on night shift at the Lighthouse and the house was calm until there was a rapid knock at the door. My mother, ever stoic and unruffled, slowly got to her feet and, keeping an eye on the television, looked out of the window,

‘By the cringe!’ she said. This was as much as she swore. ‘What does he want at this time of night?’

Callan and Lonely were arguing on TV and I wasn’t really paying attention to her but I looked up when she came back from the door with Craig who was white and shaking.

“It’s Wednesday,” I said, angrily. “Comic club is Thursday nights.” It had been a tradition over the last few years that every Thursday, Craig and a couple of other waifs and strays came to my house and we swapped comics.

“It’s our Alanby,” stuttered Craig.

“What?” I said. My mother was giving him a sympathetic look, which was grating on me. There were another twenty minutes of Callan left.

“Why not sit down, luvvie,” said my mother. “I’ll make you a cup of sweet tea and you can tell us all about it.”

She pushed Craig down into dad’s armchair and went into the kitchen. I turned my attention to the TV until the adverts came on.

Mam gave Craig his tea in a Seatown F.C. mug and he took sips, making annoying slurping noises.

The story that stumbled out of Craig, in fits and starts, was that Alanby had been released from jail after ten years inside. And he’d come home with a bride, Trish, a Scottish prostitute he’d met two days after getting out.

Craig’s parents were none too pleased and had kicked them out of their home shortly after they arrived. So, Alanby and Trish moved into a flat above one of the betting shops. Short of cash, and with a big heroin habit, Alanby had put Trish back on the game.

That night, she’d picked up a Dutch sailor down at the docks and sold him her wedding ring in The Shipp Inn. Alanby had turned up at the pub in a drunken rage and sliced Trish to pieces. He’d then turned up at his parents’ home covered in blood and wanting a change of clothes. Craig had opened the door to the blood splattered Alanby and had freaked out.

He spent the next few nights staying at my house, working his way through my mam’s Readers Digests and the Ferry’s got into the habit of packing him off to stay with me whenever they wanted him out of the way.

Well, at least these days they paid.

***

I’d never put much stock in all that hereditary cobblers. Bad blood and the like. I was more of a nurture over nature man. Though it did seem to me that The Ferry family were all born under a bad star.

Except Beverly, that is. Beverly was the only girl of the Ferry siblings. She was a qualified accountant who did the firm’s books and worked in the local civic centre. And her business acumen was a real boon to the family, especially when their enterprises became more and more legit. And she was the one that had decided to hire me to keep a bleary eye on Craig.

Beverly was in her late thirties. She was well read. She was good looking. She was fun to be with. And I had been arse over tit in love with her for as long as I could remember. And, of course, she was married. To a local Councillor, to boot.

I’d managed to manoeuvre Craig in and out of the taxi and through the front door of his flat but was having trouble getting him up the stairs. I was still aching from all that digging I’d done and was considering giving up the ghost, and leaving Craig where he lay, when his mobile started to ring.

I took it out of his pocket and looked at the display. It was Beverly. I switched off the ‘Bonanza’ theme and spoke.

“Craig’s phone, Peter Ord, speaking.”

“Oh, God, is he trashed again, Peter?”

“Either that or he’s rehearsing for his ‘Stars In Your Eyes’ appearance as Oliver Reed.”

A chuckle.

“Alright, I suppose I’ll see him tomorrow,” she said. “It was just that he had a delivery job to do earlier and I wanted to make sure it had gone well. Know anything about it?”

“Er … yeah, I think …”

“Shit, he bolloxed it up, didn’t he?”

“Well …”

“Peter, I can tell when you’re telling pork pies. I’ll be there in bit.”

***

Bev was looking very business-like in a sharp black suit and high heels, her blonde hair tied back. And she looked more than somewhat pissed off.

“So, who was the idiot with the Luger?” she said. She had to raise her voice slightly as Craig’s snores were now echoing through the living room. We’d managed to get him on the sofa and left him there. We moved into the cramped kitchen and I took a can of Fosters from the fridge.

“Fancy one?”

Bev shook her head.

“So, the Shogun Assassin?”

“Dunno who he was. Craig said that the bloke pissed off on a motorbike before he could get his hands on him. Was dressed head to foot in black, like a ninja, apparently.”

“Yeah, well our Craig has always been blessed with an over ripe imagination.”

“True, true.”

“A ninja with a Luger sounds like something from one of those comics you two used to read. Was he on anything?”

“Yeah, a motorbike,” I said

“Not the ninja, you plonker, Craig!”

“Ah, well…”

“Jesus. I thought you were supposed to keep an eye on him?”

“Hey, he was already as high as Sly by the time I met him.”

The story was this: One of the Ferry family’s occasional entrepreneurial activities was importing unusual animals through the docks and selling them to collectors of exotic pets. One such collector was Bobby Bowles, the former football superstar, who had a private zoo just outside Seatown.

Craig’s job was to deliver a kangaroo to Bobby in exchange for a wad of dosh. However, on his way to Bowles’ place, Craig’s van was stopped by a ninja with a gun who shot the kangaroo and scarped on a Harley Davidson. Craig phoned me to help him get rid of Skippy’s body, of course, hence my fun day at the graveyard.

“This is a very bloody important time for the family business,” said Bev. “Dad’s very ill, Alanby is never going to get out of Wakefield nick since he spiked that warden’s tea with ecstasy and Dafydd is, well, Dafydd …”

Dafydd had, for many years, been so far in the closet he was in Narnia but when he eventually came out he shocked the family by moving down south to open up a scuba diving club with an Australian. This was blamed for causing Glyn Ferry’s first heart attack.

“So, Craig is being groomed to take over as head of the family business?” I said.

Bev raised her eyebrows.

“Supposedly,” she said.

“Oh, dear,” I said.

“Oh, dear, indeed,” said Bev.

***

We were sitting in ‘Velvettes Gentleman’s Club’ staring behind the bar at a stained glass recreation of the famed poster of the female tennis player scratching her arse that many a teenage boy had on their wall in the Seventies.

“Lesbians?” I said. I finished my pint of Stella. I was well and truly off the wagon now.

“Yep,” said Craig.

“I’ve never heard that one before.”

“Aye. Good With Colours is a euphemism for gay men and Tennis Fans is for lesbians.”

“Well, as always, Craig, you are an education.”

“Well, you should read more, shouldn’t you? Might learn something.”

I finished my drink and went over to the bar. The dancers were starting to arrive at Velvettes. It was a couple of hours before opening time but Jack Martin, the owner, usually gave them a little booze up on a Saturday night to get them in the mood. Jack was more of your benevolent kind of gangster.

“But I think you’re avoiding the issue, Craig,” I said, as I sat back down. “What are you going to do now?”

“Well, I’ll see if Jack needs anyone for a bit of occasional strong-arm work. Him and dad are on good terms. For the moment, anyway.”

“But Bev’s the family gaffer now?”

“Yep, pretty much. Head of the family. The Godsister. Dad’s said he can’t trust me after ‘The Kangaroo Incident’, as he calls it.”

“You ever find out who shot Skippy? Or why?”

“Not a clue. And Bev doesn’t seem too bothered about finding them, either. Thinks they were from out of town. Albania or somewhere. She thinks we might have been encroaching on their territory.”

“Oh, can’t go around encroaching. Well out of order, that.”

As the girls hovered around the bar there was a cacophony of foreign accents. It was nice. A welcome change.

Seatown was a small town on the north east coast of England and its location meant that you couldn’t really end up there by accident. All the main roads bypassed the place. People rarely left the town and not too many outsiders decided to settle here, either.

Contact with foreigners was once, in fact, such a rarity that, legend had it, during the Napoleonic wars the people of Seatown had hanged a monkey because they thought it was a French spy. Not an unreasonable mistake, in many people’s minds. So, I suppose you could say that there was a track record of exotic animals coming to an unfortunate end in Seatown.

It was also very hard to keep a secret here.

Which was why I knew all about Bev’s new Harley Davidson, even if the rest of her family didn’t. And why I wasn’t particularly shocked when she’d mentioned Craig’s attacker using a Luger, even though I hadn’t mentioned it to her before.

I did consider sharing this information with Craig, of course. Well, for all of five minutes, I did.

It was pretty clear that the Ferry family were in safe hands with Bev ruling the roost. And it was certainly a lot safer for me to have her on my side than against me. After all, despite what Craig may have thought, it wasn’t what you knew that mattered in life, it was who you knew.

The End

You can read more Peter Ord Yarns in Gumshoe Blues.

Recommended Read: The Last Resort by Susi Holliday

Seven strangers head off on an all-expenses- paid trip to a luxurious private island to take part in a mysterious test. All of those strangers have dark secrets that are revealed throughout the course of the trip. I really don’t want to say anymore, to avoid spoilers but Susi Holliday’s The Last Resort really is a cracking, gripping read. Indeed, it’s the very definition of a page turner. Holliday expertly tells the tale by changing the POV of the characters, as well as moving backwards and forwards in time and the result is highly addictive. The Last Resort is highly recommended.

Recommended Read: Sound Of The Sinners by Nick Quantrill

British private detective Joe Geraghty is holed up in Amsterdam, laying low from the trials and tribulations of his life in Hull. After missing a phone call from his former business partner Don Ridley, he later finds out that Don is dead. Geraghty returns to Hull for Don’s funeral and is soon embroiled in an investigation of Don’s death that digs up more than a few dirty secrets that people in high places would much prefer to keep buried.

Nick Quantrill’s Sound Of The Sinners is the 4th Joe Geraghty novel and sees the welcome return of one of crime fiction’s most realistic and likeable private eyes. As always, Quantrill gives us a cracking story with a great sense of time and place.

A Story For Sunday: The Zodiac Club

The Zodiac Club, at 666 Casanova Street, loomed ominously over Silver City like a great black spider waiting to ensnare its prey. Once a full moon clung to the sky, a sickly stew of screams and howls clung to the wind and drifted down to the city, coaxing Victor Brown from an already fitful sleep.

Retired Police Detective Victor Brown was a discarded and crumpled tissue of a man who spent night after night on his soaking bed as dark dreams and worse memories lapped at the shore of his sleep. Until he awoke, drowning in sweat.

Each night, violent thoughts brewed and bubbled to boiling point until, at last, one cold winter night, thought congealed into action.

*

Just after midnight, Victor stumbled out of his clammy bed and into the migraine bright bathroom. He splashed his face with water and looked in the cracked mirror at his battle-scarred face with its furrowed brow and drinker’s nose.

He stumbled back into the bedroom and collapsed on the bed. Wheezing, he poured himself a large Jack Daniels. His eyes filled up with tears as he looked at the dusty framed photo of his wife and child, on holiday outside Silver City. He picked it up and kissed it.

It had been ten years since their car had broken down and they had made the fatal mistake of going to The Zodiac Club for help.

Victor blamed himself, of course. He’d been on a stakeout and hadn’t answered the phone when his wife had called. He knew what went on behind the walls of the Zodiac Club once the moon was full and gibbous. The whole Police Department knew but what could they do? Nick Casanova owned the club and owned the whole stinking city.

He switched on the lone light bulb, which buzzed and flickered, revealing a room cluttered with wooden barrels and crates. And a large, battered, black suitcase.

Victor opened it wide. Inside were a Glock, three grenades,six silver bullets and a gleaming silver dagger. He said a silent prayer and guzzled from a bottle of bourbon before fastening a crucifix around his neck.

*

The moonlight oozed across Silver City’s shattered sidewalks like quicksilver; creeping between the cracks, crawling into the gutters. Victor slowly walked up the hill, his breath appearing in front of him like a spectre.

As he got closer to the Zodiac Club’s blinking neon sign, Victor could hear music and laughter. The screech of a woman suddenly sliced the air. Victor shivered, pulling the long black overcoat close to his flesh. He pulled out the pistol and carefully pushed open the large metal door. He paused and then stepped into the hallway.

Checking his pistol, Victor walked toward the sounds. He paused in front of a pair of wooden doors and kicked them open.

The room was suffocating in red velvet and leather. Half eaten corpses littered the marble floor and around them, feasting, were some sort of creatures – half man, half wolf.

Instinctively, Victor threw a grenade.

The next few moments were a flash of fireworks and explosions.

As the smoke subsided, the creatures crawled towards him.

There were about five of them. A couple of them ran toward Victor but he sprayed them with silver bullets. He threw another grenade and kept on firing as the wolf creatures pounced.

Then there was silence except for his heartbeat. And a snarling sound. Victor turned and saw the wolf behind him ready to attack. As he went for his revolver the wolf was on him, knocking him to the ground.

With a series of slashes from his silver Bowie knife, it was over and Victor was soaked with blood. Panting he struggled to move the werewolf’s corpse and blinked as a hand grenade rolled onto the ground. And then he looked into wolf’s bloody jaws. A grenade’s pin was attached to one of its incisors.

Victor gasped and started to say a prayer.

And then it all turned black.

THIS YARN FIRST APPEARED AT THE LATE, GREAT A TWIST OF NOIR.

A Story For Sunday: Stamp Of A Vamp

    Alison Day was a mousy woman who had barely been scuffed by the wear and tear of life until the day she met Lulu, the effect of which was like lightning hitting a plane. The Autumn night draped itself over the city, and the moon bit into the sky as Alison rushed home from her usual Wednesday evening yoga class. She felt edgy and fumbled for her keys as she heard the click, click, click of high heels on the wet pavement. She turned. On the corner of the street, beneath a blinking street lamp, a woman was smoking a cigarette. Her silhouette seemed to appear and disappear like warm breath on a cold window pane.

The woman was tall and, like Alison, in her early thirties with wan looking skin, a slash of red lipstick across her full lips and her black hair cut into a Louise Brooks bob. She was wearing a red PVC raincoat and shiny black stiletto heels and Alison suddenly felt very dowdy with her green cagoule, Gap jeans and mousy, unkempt hair.

The woman slowly sauntered towards Alison-and in a muddy foreign accent, said:

‘Keep looking at people like that and you’ll be in for a good tongue lashing.’

And then she collapsed in heap at Alison’s’ feet.

* * *

    ‘Would you like a cup of tea?” said Alison, “I have …’
    ‘Something stronger, maybe?’ purred the woman as she sat up from the sofa.
    Alison rummaged in a cupboard and found an unopened bottle of absinthe.
    ‘How about this?’ she said.
    The woman smiled and lit a Gauloises cigarette.
    ‘My name is Lulu,’ she said, filling two shot glasses with absinthe. ‘Drink with me, eh?’
    As the night hurtled on, Alison got drunk and in the process told Lulu her life story, such as it was. Lulu seemed fascinated by Alison’s idyllic, picture postcard childhood in Yorkshire and her job at Bermondsey Library. Lulu revealed little about herself, however, except that she had come from Bucharest shortly before the revolution and that she was married to a nightclub owner called Nicholas.
    ‘You know,’ said Alison ‘ I hardly ever drink. My friends say that I can get drunk on the sniff of a barmaids apron.’ She giggled.
    ‘This is the first time I’ve drunk absinthe.’
    ‘Makes the heart grow fonder,’ said Lulu, licking the rim of the glass and holding Alison’s gaze.
    At some point during the night Alison woke up in bed, in a cold sweat, with no recollection of getting there. Lulu, naked, was smoking and gazing out of the bedroom window. The tip of her cigarette glowed bright red and then faded to black.

***

    In the morning, as slivers of sun sliced through the blinds, Alison awoke and saw that Lulu was gone. Memories of the night before fizzed like champagne bubbles as, on the bed, she saw a business card for Vamps Gentleman’s Club in Shoreditch. Written in red lipstick, was a phone number.

***

Vamps was suffocating in black leather and red velvet. It was cluttered with noisy groups of brash City Boys and semi-naked young women who wandered around with beer glasses full of money. The DJ played ‘Goldfinger’ as a statuesque blond, wearing only a pair of angels’ wings, crawled up and down a glistening pole.

Alison sat on a large black sofa next to Lulu, who was dressed in a red leather nun’s habit with a gold pentagram dangling from a chain around her neck. Tearing the label from her beer bottle she moved in close to hear Lulu speak.

‘I suppose marriage to Nicholas was a marriage of convenience.’ Lulu said. ‘I wanted to stay legally in England and he wanted…well, a pet. He promised me a job in a West End nightclub and I ended up here. But the worse thing is, he makes me have sex with other dancers. His business partners.’

She downed her drink in one.

‘Can’t you leave him?’ said Alison, red faced.

‘If I leave him, I’ll be deported and that will be that’, she said. Alison blanched.

As Autumn trudged on into Winter, Alison and Lulu’s meetings became more frequent and murderous thoughts hovered over them like a hawk ready to strike its prey until one night Lulu eventually said, ‘Okay. Let’s kill him.’

***

‘You see, ninety nine percent of the human race are just here to make up the numbers,’ said Nicholas, in a voice stained with nicotine and brimmed with brandy. He was an elegant, handsome man in his sixties. He indifferently smoked a large cigar, the smoke rings floating above his head like a halo or a crown of thorns.

‘They’re just cannon fodder. Don’t you agree?’

Alison couldn’t agree or disagree. She couldn’t say a thing and she couldn’t move.
    The plan had been simple enough. She was to go to Vamps on New Years Eve and ask about work as dancer. When the place closed she’d accept Nicholas’s inevitable invitation to go to his office for a night cap with him and Lulu. They were to poison him and dump his body in the Thames along with the drunks who tottered into the river’s dank and dirty water at this time of year.

But after the first couple of drinks she realised that she was paralysed. In the oak and leather armchair she was like an insect trapped in amber. The clock struck twelve and the room was lit up by exploding fireworks. Lulu and Nicholas’ eyes glowed bright red and then faded to black.

‘Happy New Year, my sweet ,’ said Lulu. ‘I hope you like your present.’

‘I’m sure I will, darling ‘, said Nicholas, ‘I know how difficult it is to find fresh meat in these decadent times’. He chuckled and seemed to float from his chair.

As Nicholas sank his fangs deep into her neck, Alison felt pain greater than she had ever  felt before. She wanted to cry, to scream, to tear herself apart but she could do nothing except listen to the sound of fireworks and Lulu’s cruel, cruel laughter.

SUPERNATURAL NOIR BY PAUL D. BRAZILL

A Story For Sunday: The Hit Man & Her

The Hit Man And Her


Carl Henderson squinted as he greeted the tired-sounding American woman who seemingly collapsed onto a bar stool. Because the scorching, midday sun streamed through the bar’s entryway, all he could make out was her silhouette. Upon grabbing his sunglasses atop the liquor well, they availed a slender, fair-skinned woman who appeared to be in her late forties. More, time had been good to her, which only accentuated her blue spaghetti-strap dress. She herself donned sunglasses that looked a lot more expensive than his. She held out a perfectly manicured hand as Henderson took it delicately.
“Linda,” she smiled.
“Craig,” he lied.
“What can I get you?” Henderson asked as he pulled back his hand and placed it opposite his other on the bar.
“Well, it’s just after noon, so that makes it margarita time in my book,” Linda said as she glanced at the clock and flicked her long, auburn hair.
He prepared the drink with a flourish and carefully slid it across to her. “What do you think?”
Linda sipped the drink and gave a shaky thumbs up. Henderson smiled and crossed his arms in confidence. “…nice to know. A cocktail is like a sense of humour—a very personal thing,” he said.
“Too true,” she said and set the margarita down.
He turned back and slammed the till closed so hard that the overhead optics rattled.
“With my late husband, humour was the hardest part at first,” Linda added. Shakenly, she stood and leaned over the bar. “Well, that and the Yorkshire accent.” Firmly gripping the bar, steadying herself, Linda returned to her seat and grabbed the margarita—stroked (caressed). “Rod was like a machine gun, rattling off these one-liners filled with cultural references I just didn’t have a hope of getting.” She smiled. “…never did get a lot of them.” She scraped some margarita salt from the rim and licked it off her finger tip.
Henderson simply nodded, waiting for her to continue. He knew he was in for the long haul with this one. Just by looking at her, he could tell Linda needed a shrink at least as much as the alcohol . He could see how haunted she looked . Still, business was business. The bar was always deserted on Tuesday afternoons—the bloody Spanish and their siestas . Linda was the only customer, apart from the old, English geezer, who sat in the corner, with the walking stick and thick glasses. He’d been nursing a milky coffee for hours and didn’t look particularly keen on buying anything else.
“The first time we met,” Linda said, “was on a boat.”
Looking in the pub mirror behind him, Henderson straightened his tie then turned back to Linda. He grabbed the CD-player remote and activated the CD player. Tim Hardin’s voice wafted into the room—a Leonard Cohen song about trying to be free.
“I was barely in my twenties, trying to prove I could be independent from my rich daddy. He was a big shot executive for General Motors. Anyway, I got a job working as a kids’ entertainer on a cruise ship that was going around the Greek Islands.”
Henderson sipped his lemonade and simultaneously looked up at the ceiling fan. It was working, but the bar was still stiflingly hot. He’d tried to get planning permission for air conditioning; but since it was a listed building, it was out of the question. It had cost plenty already. Almost everything he’d ripped off from Big Howie, in fact. “Sounds great,” he said.
“It was. …another world. I’d never been out of Michigan before, let alone The States. My family didn’t like to travel. Dad always said, ‘why go looking around the world when we have everything we need at home?’”
“Not the most adventurous of blokes, then?”
“Not exactly. So, there I was, trying to entertain the kids—who were a running riot—when this middle-aged English singer turned up. In two minutes, Rod got them organised into two lines. ‘Boys in front of Uncle Ian (him)’ and ‘girls in front of Auntie Myra (me).’ Not that I got the joke at the time.”
“The Moors Murderers? Sick joke, that.”
He grimaced; Linda shrugged.
“But I take it you hit it off anyway?” Henderson asked.
“Yeah, and what a life that led to. I joined the band on backing vocals, and that eventually became a duo—him and me. I played keyboards even though I had no musical training. He put coloured tape and numbers on the keys for each song. We went around the world—Russia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and Italy.”
“Smashing.”
Linda nodded.
“It was in Morocco when I noticed something strange though. Rod always went out for a drink late at night. Sometimes, he didn’t come back ’til the early hours, but he rarely seemed drunk.”
“Not necessarily a bad thing…”
“Yeah, so I started to get a little paranoid. Suspicious. One night in Morocco, I followed him. He walked and walked and eventually ended up in a small, dark bar. He sat with a big, sweaty guy in a stained, white, linen suit —very creepy looking. I saw Rod move up close to the guy and whisper in his ear. I was about to barge in when I saw Rod lean even closer, and the businessman slumped into a heap on the floor.”
Henderson stopped cleaning the pint glass in his hand.
“Then, Rod walked out of the bar—a blank expression on his face. He put a gun in his jeans’ waist band and walked straight past me.”
“So, what did you do?”
“I did nothing—said nothing. …didn’t know what to say. I was in shock or something. A few months later, we returned to England and went to a bank. Rod opened up safety-deposit boxes full of more cash than I’d ever seen. We put on money belts stuffed with hundred-dollar bills.”
“Wow!”
“Yep. We headed off to Switzerland and put the money in a bank account there.”
“And did you ever confront him?”
“Eventually. But I knew the score by then—I’d guessed. It was clear that Rod was a hit man—an international assassin for hire. The musician thing was perfect cover.”
“Yeah, perfect,” Henderson said, a little nervous now . He wiped his brow with a handkerchief.
“Anyway, things slowed down a little and then…When we were in Africa, The Gambia, well, Rod died of Malaria.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“I buried him there. …went back to his home town for a memorial. …returned to Michigan for a while.”
“So, did you give up the music?”
“Yes. I never had any talent for that side of the business. But I carried on Rod’s other work.”
Linda dug into her handbag and pulled out a gun. Henderson turned pale and dropped the glass, which shattered on the floor.
“A goodbye from Big Howie.” She fired. Henderson fell backwards—a single bullet in his forehead.
The man with the walking stick sat up.
“You know, I’ve always wanted to invest in a bar,” Rod said and tapped his stick on the stool.
“You’ve invested in far too many as it is!” Linda said as they walked, arm in arm, out into the mid-day sun.