We met in a pub, just off the Roman Road. I was sitting at the bar, sipping a vodka and tonic, you were standing at the door talking to the landlord. I knew the pubs around the neighbourhood pretty well and this was not the most salubrious of establishments. The walls were in dire need of a re-paint, the carpet, once a red and black Persian design, was stained and threadbare. The tables and chairs were begging for a varnish, all tatty and peeling like sunburnt skin.
The punters were not much better, a sad looking bunch, that's true. But it was not for these things that I frequented this particular bar. No. If you were after some action, raw and uncensored, then this was the place to be. The landlord was a muscle-bound thug called Johnny, who was a renowned hard man. He liked to have me sitting pretty at the bar of a Friday night because he reckoned I attracted exactly the kind of seedy bastard who would spend a fortune on beer just to sit there and leer at me all night. Besides, he always bunged me a twenty and kept my glass filled, so I was happy.
I crossed one leg over the other, shifted my bum on the hard wooden stool and let my skirt fall away to reveal a little more leg. Johnny cast a toothy grin my way, gave me the thumbs up and it was then that I caught your eye. I held your gaze for a few seconds. You blushed and looked away. I lit a cig and watched you with increasing curiosity.
Most men in there would leer, jeer and dribble in their beer. But you were different. There was sensitivity behind your eyes, not in keeping with your line of work. It was only later that I found out you were the most incompetent hard man in the history of our little corner of the city. But by then I had fallen for your rough and ready charm. I had found my purpose in life.
I didn’t have a proper job, having gone from one dead end office to another with increasing boredom and indifference. The most excitement I got from my last job was sending saucy texts from the office dork to various female managers and watching them squirm with discomfort in one another’s company. In the end I was deemed too rude and uncommunicative to make a worthy receptionist, so they sacked me.
I have no talents whatsoever, other than sitting pretty and massaging the collective male ego. No sweet voice to sing the blues, no ounce of rhythm in my shoes. If the latter had been different, I might have tried my hand at stripping or table dancing, but I’d only trip myself up or get my knickers in a twist.
Sometimes I got offers from the men who came in here and had they been halfway decent looking with enough cash to see me right, I might have been tempted. But I couldn’t contemplate the creepy dicks that patronised Johnny's gaff. Until, that is, you arrived on the scene. Your hair was slicked back and you wore your shirt half undone in a casual sort of way, sleeves rolled up, slacks and brogues. Your complexion was too soft for a thug, too few scars, save one about an inch long, just above your right eyebrow which in the end, served only to lend you a kind of surprised look.
I saw Johnny slap you on the back and usher you towards the bar, towards me. I inhaled deeply. You looked at me with those sad, seeking eyes and I nearly choked. Johnny waved down the barmaid.
“Re-fill for the lady, two pints of best, love.” He winked at me and turned towards you. “Chad, Angel. Angel, Chad.” We shook hands. Angel and Chad. Had a kind of ring to it, don’t you think? I didn’t really know who you were or why you were there. I cared not for loyalties and deals unclinched, who reported to whom, why, how and where. I was up for excitement, anything to allay the boredom of a Friday night in Sad City. One thing I have to say though, wherever you went, excitement followed in your wake. Trouble spotted you from the far side of town, swept into our lives, and hunted you down.
That night, it was in the guise of a big, blond haired, stubble cheeked fat boy named Jack who came looking for revenge or some such. I was looking at you most of the time, you understand, so I didn’t actually see the crowd part, as the man made his way towards the spot where you were standing. The first thing I noticed was the beer glass come flying out of your hand spreading the contents over the bar staff and showering nearby customers with broken glass. Then he had you on the floor, where you wrestled together for a while before Johnny calmly reached behind the bar for his baseball bat.
“See him,” Johnny said to me. “That’s Jack. Jack doesn’t like Chad very much. They used to work together. Not any more. Not since Chad bungled a job for him up West about six months ago. Thirty-five mil. I think I would have whacked him myself for such a cosmic cock-up.” I watched the two of them slip-sliding around in the beer. Chad managed a few body blows that had very little effect, given the amount of extra padding that Jack was carrying, before Jack finally wrestled him into a neck lock.
“You gonna help him?” I said, stubbing out my cig and draining my glass.
“Maybe. In a little while,” Johnny said, running his hand up and down the knobbly bat. Johnny always said it was his lucky bat and it sure looked like it had seen a good few rumbles in its time, there were great nicks missing from the wood and it was full of dents.
A circle had formed around the pair and a few others in the room had begun to throw punches to anyone who happened to get in the way; no one around here liked to be left out of a good scrap.
I didn’t like the way that Jack had a hold of your head. And I didn’t like the way his fist was slamming into you with alarming speed and accuracy. Such a pretty face, such a waste. I stood up and strode over to where you both lay sprawled, lifted my foot before Jack had a chance to resume his onslaught and carefully placed a stiletto heel on his shoulder. Surprised, he leaned back and took in the view, releasing his grip on you. I lifted my skirt a little more and he let out a growl of approval before releasing you completely. Once you were free of his grip, I stuck my heel in his shoulder and watched his face change as the pain kicked in. He squealed like a little girl as I let the force of my weight puncture his skin and a dark wet patch spread out from my shoe soaking his suit. I slipped my foot from the shoe and was away. Outside, I kicked my other shoe away and left the screaming mayhem for Johnny to deal with.
Heady with the excitement, I ran barefoot through the streets, stopping every so often to catch my breath. A car began to crawl along behind me until I turned and gave it the finger. The driver got the message and the car sped off, burning rubber in its wake. Then, for no reason that I can possibly think of, I turned and started to walk back towards the pub, towards you. You were waiting for me, just around the corner, out of sight of the old bill, which had just arrived on the scene. I looked you up and down and you were smiling. You looked me up and down, taking in the bare feet.
“Angel,” you said.
Your face was starting to look puffy, so I cupped your cheeks in my palms and kissed it better. Then we walked away, arm in arm.
You would never have made a good thug anyway. Too much compassion in your soul. If I hurt you, then I'm sorry. I had only your best interests at heart.
Later that evening we lay side by side, legs entwined and breathless with the scent of one another. I reached over and stroked the bruises on your face with my fingertips.
“Why do you do this?” I was bemused with the stories of your utter ineptitude. You shrugged, casual, nonchalant.
“It's a job.”
“Or not,” I said. You frowned at me. “Thirty five mil?” Then you started to laugh and shake your head.
“You win some-”
“Don't say it. Don't ever say that.” I gently placed a finger across your lips. “We are not losers.”
I decided from that moment, I was going to help you in any way I could. And of course, to make as much money as possible for us both to spend together. My purpose was to keep you safe and to keep us loving and living. Loving was not a problem. It was the living part that proved most difficult. But try as I might and believe me, I was there more often than you would have thought possible, you still managed to slip on every banana skin left in your path.
For a long time I puzzled over this phenomenon. How could someone who had done nothing but criminal activity for the best part of their life be so bloody crap at it and stay alive? Well, the answer came to me one day, the day they gave you your instructions, the day they wanted you to take someone out, someone else who had proved to be a liability. The very nature of the business goes against the grain of your self. Me? I don't care. I would have done anything for you. Anything. And I did. It was all the same to me. You play this game, then you expect a come back. But you, you were different. I needed to protect you from all that and that's why I did it. I did that job for you, because I knew you could not have gone through with it, I knew that you were being tested and I knew what the consequences would be if you failed to return with the blood on your hands. I know you pondered for a long time on who had done you the favour and it bothered you, even though I did manage to persuade you to take the rap for it. Still, you kept your mouth shut and I loved you all the more for your contemplative virtue.
It was easy really. I didn't think of it as taking a life, more as saving a life -- yours. My experience with guns was limited, so it wasn't a clean job. He bled a lot and kept talking, pleading and screaming. So I had to shoot him several times before he finally shut up. It is a powerful feeling, to take someone's life. I left as soon as the life slipped out of him and several blocks away, retched until the bile made my throat burn. The sickness slowly abated with thoughts of you. Hey, life is for the living. The first time is the hardest, but most professionals have to start somewhere. After that, it gets easier, believe me.
So now you know part of the truth, you probably think I'm a bitch. Well, you're right and I admit it. A thirst for danger took me down a road to petty crime that started in my teenage years and escalated into my twenties, up until I met you. You could say, that was when I made the decision, the decision to turn professional. Some say you need a cold heart to do this line of work, but I disagree. As long as you are able to distance yourself from your target, look upon it as just a job, you are okay. Besides, it was out of love for you that I found myself able to continue.
I kept it hidden from you mainly because I knew it was something that had failed you in your chosen path, something that might have brought shame upon your name and it suited me too, this clandestine existence. I moved among the shadows and danced with death. My reputation grew within an elite circle, those who knew that no one might suspect a woman like myself capable of such crimes.
Will you still love me when you learn the naked truth about your beloved Angel? When my final deed is done, when I have liberated you from your past, will you thank me then? The future will be stark without you, one way or another. I can handle the loss of your love, but not your life. Let me tell you about the Golden Boy. The one with that fateful contract, to split us up forever.
I'll tell you how it works. There are people who operate below the lowest levels of the low. Beneath the underground of the city is a level that few are even aware of, like the Ninja assassins of Japan, our existence is legendary, but no one really knows the truth. I heard a whisper. There was a contract out on you, you had become a liability and the command had come down from the top. I found out who, when and where. Then I was there, to intervene in my customary manner. Men - they always fall for the oldest trick in the book.
The Blue Last was heaving with people. It was Friday night. I had already been upstairs the day before when no one was around, just to check out the scene and plan my escape route.
A few men noticed me enter. Not unusual when a woman walks alone into a place like this. The men on the door knew me and nodded as I made my way towards the bar. The walls reverberated with the volume of the music, and semi-clad girls danced around, waving their tits in the face of any man likely to part with the odd tenner.
It was Dave. He was standing at the bar talking to a blonde and re-arranging his hair in typical love thyself fashion. Dave worked out. You could see it beneath his sports top and tight jeans. He flaunted himself in an unforgivable manner, but no one would suspect him of some of the jobs I knew he was capable of. He was far too clean, far too well liked. Renowned as a man out for the good life, fast cars and easy women, Dave was a party animal. Funny how no one really wondered where the cash came from to fund his lifestyle. I knew, though. But then, I knew much more than you would give me credit for.
"Angel." He opened his arms wide. A brilliant white smile filled his entire face, a face that I knew reflected false promises. "What are you doing here?" As if he didn't know. "Looking for Chad?" Funny he should say that. Rehearsed and clipped, he dismissed the blonde and put an arm around my shoulders, steering me towards the bar. "Have a drink. He should be here soon." I smiled. I looked duly grateful, batted my eyelids and slid an arm around his waist in appreciation. He squeezed me tighter and I wondered what he would have done if I had not played right into his arms. He must have had a plan B. But I could feel him relax. He was assured of an easy ride. I was complicit in his hour of need.
Dave had been working on me for weeks and I, knowing what I knew, had been encouraging him at every opportunity. So I wasn't surprised when, after a few drinks, he suggested we go upstairs.
Alone together in a room reserved for ‘special’ customers.
"What about Chad?" I said, all innocence and guile as I removed my clothes. Dave shrugged.
"He'll wait downstairs, he has his orders," he said, knowing full well that Chad had been told to come upstairs.
I lay down on the sofa as he lowered himself toward me. Really he was much too self-centered to be appealing, though some women seemed to find him attractive. But I could play dumb too. Remember how I used to sit at bars and look attractive for a living? Well this was much the same thing, if somewhat more physical. And it was all for you. Everything I did was for you. I willed you to open that door and as you did, as if in slow motion, I saw him reach underneath the cushions to produce his gun.
One swift palm heel strike to the side of his head dazed him long enough for me to wrestle the weapon free and shoot, almost point blank range, into his chest. The silencer deadened the sound of the shot. Thankful for small mercies, I heaved his body off the side of the sofa, and it slumped to the floor. I sat up, my naked breasts smeared with blood. You stood in the doorway, eyes wide and face incredulous, blathering.
"Chad…" Then you came swiftly into the room, shutting the door behind you. "He was supposed to shoot you in self-defence, enraged with jealously as you are, seeing us together." But you didn't look enraged. You looked… devastated.
"You… you shot him." You were shaking.
"I had to. He would have taken you out. Chad, I did it for you. Everything has been for you."
A confused look flickered across your face. "You slept with him. You were bloody sleeping with him. You shot him."
"Arrgh.." Dave said. My shot had not been as accurate as usual. We both looked to the floor where the body of Dave began to heave and labour for breath.
I leant over, took aim and shot him once to the head. He lay still. Silenced by virtue of his profession.
"Shit." You threw your hands up, clawing at your hair, then dropped them to your sides. "Fuck. What have you done?" You stamped your foot and paced two steps forward, then turned and paced back and forth. "I can't believe you did that."
"Come on," I said. "We have to go. It's time to go before they realise what's happened." I dressed, wiping the blood from my chest and my hands.
"What do you mean go? Go where?"
"We're outta here, Chad. The past is now past. We have a new future. I've booked a cab to take us to the airport. If they catch us, we're both dead."
"Wait, wait, wait. What do you mean, catch us? What the fuck have you done, Angel? Why would they want either of us dead? Why the fuck would I wanna go with you after… after that?" You gesture with disgust at the Dave's corpse, your hands shaking.
"It was you or him, Chad. I chose you."
You stared at me, tears welling in your eyes. "Is that supposed to make me feel better? So cold, Angel. So cold. You fuck him, then shoot him and expect me to feel good about that?"
Am I so cold? Is it so heartless to love so much it drives you do something like this? Am I heartless?
"I… love you."
"No." Something dawned on you and you widened your eyes at me. "Wait, Jefferson?" I flinched. "You?" You stared at me, your face screwing up with revulsion.
"Chad… we have to go." I could hear the honk of a cab downstairs. In the distance, police sirens wailed then faded away. The window was open, it was just a short drop to the ground floor and we could be away. You stood with your arms folded across your chest.
"Jones? Sandy? Mr Khani?"
Just names to me. Names at the end of a long list. Names that belonged to a past that is no longer mine. And once that plane lifts clear of this land, a past you had no need to know about.
"Come on." I reached out for you with my free hand. You grabbed me by the wrist, holding my gun hand steady, pointing it towards your chest.
"Or what? You'll shoot me, just like the others? Don't try to tell me you whacked all the others just for me." You fitted your hand snugly over my own and gently started to squeeze, nuzzling the gun in the crook of your neck. A well-placed bullet would travel up, through your throat and into your brain, silencing your doubts forever. One sudden move from me could have finished you then. For an instant, I stopped breathing. Then you broke down and sobbed, releasing my hand. I put the safety catch on, slipped the weapon inside my bag and guided you without resistance towards our exit, towards our freedom.
You were quiet on the way to the airport. I had thought that perhaps I might have lost you before we got to the plane. And you surprised me by staying with me all that time, waiting for our seats to be confirmed along with our fate. Perhaps all you needed was time. Time to come to terms with what had happened, time to forgive me. From the look on your face when you walked into that room above the Blue Last, I had thought it was all over. I was prepared to accept that. Prepared to have been all alone on this flight to the future. But there you were, standing by me. What I had not been prepared for was the final departing gift that you left me, the memory of which leaves me cold, even now that the warmth in my life has left forever.
When you got up to go to the gents, I kind of thought that might have been the last I would see of you. I kind of hoped I would depart with just the memory of your face, expressionless, innocent. Not the grim resolution that haunts me to this day as I saw you emerge flanked on either side by plain clothed police followed by the uniformed guard and armed response.
You shrugged at me, even as I realised the awful truth of my mistake. No warmth in your eyes, just bitter resignation as your colleagues snapped the handcuffs on my wrists and confiscated my bags.
"Sorry," you said. For a flicker of a moment, I thought you really meant it. "It's a job."