I haven’t posted any fiction here for a while, so I thought you might enjoy a taste of the book I’m working on, Sympathy for the Devils. Set in Leeds in 1971 – here’s the opening. I’d be really interested to have your opinions; after all, you’re the readers, my intended audience…
COSTA BRAVA, FEBRUARY 10, 1971
The house was easy enough to find, a quarter of a mile up the track above the village. His plimsolls didn’t make a sound as he climbed over the hard ground. There was a thin moon, just enough light to pick his way over the tree roots and not enough for anyone to spot him. The haversack on his back didn’t weight much; all he was carrying was what he needed for the job.
He’d scouted the area that morning, looking like a tourist who’d lost his way. He’d spotted the track but hadn’t followed it. Instead he’d spent a few minutes in the village; it didn’t need any more than that, with a few poor shops and a café that sat in the deep shade of a tree.
So this is Spain, Mark thought. There was no money here, people still using horses and carts, only a few old cars and the burp of a motor scooter somewhere. Two miles away, where he was staying, it was a little better. But not that much. Warmer than Leeds, but, God, the place was deprived.
There were no lights in the house. He slipped on a pair of gloves, broke the glass on a window and unlatched it. Inside, the air was stuffy, as if no one had been there for a while. Good. He hadn’t asked who owned the place, or why Ellis wanted it torched. That wasn’t his business.
He unbuckled the haversack and took out the newspapers, souvenir tee shirts and a can of lighter fluid. Easy enough to buy and nothing to arouse suspicion. He tore the newspaper and shirts into strips and glanced around. Right, he thought, and pushed the solid oak table over by the bed, piling cloth and paper on the thin, worn mattress.
Working quickly, he doused everything in lighter fluid, and replaced the can in the haversack. A quick flick of his fingers and he’d lit a match, tossing it onto the pile. Mark waited a few seconds to be certain the blaze had caught, then left.
He slipped down the patch, no more than a shadow, moving quickly and lightly. Out past the village, on the dark road, he turned, able to see the flames lighting the sky. Halfway back to the hotel, he heard a soft whoomp, looked, and saw the flames climbing higher. Must have been a propane tank, he thought. Up on the hillside, the blaze stood out like a beacon.
Mark tossed the empty can of lighter fluid in the bushes, removed the gloves, and walked on.
LEEDS, FEBRUARY 8, 1971
‘Please don’t,’ she said when Mark moved his hands to her breasts, and the look she gave made him stop. Her voice was no more than a whisper, almost pleading. He moved his arms away, cradling her head against his chest.
He’d been awake since six, thinking about that her. Thinking about last night He rolled over, smelling the scent of her on the pillow. The bed was warm, the blankets like a cocoon around him. He settled into it for a minute, then pushed back the covers and stood.
Bloody freezing. He dressed quickly, making tea and toast, keeping one eye on the clock. He knew better than to be late.
In the end, he still had to run to catch the bus on Headingley Lane, climbing to the top deck and panting as he found a seat next to a woman who spent the whole trip into town coughing and sniffling. Mark Johnson huddled in his army greatcoat and tried to ignore her.
It had been a good night, the first time Pam had been to the flat, their first chance to really be alone. They’d been going out for four weeks, the usual cinema and disco routine, over for tea, an awkwardly polite couple of hours with her mum and dad. They didn’t quite approve of him, he could tell; there were too many silences during the meal. No surprise they had a little talk with her later, saying perhaps she shouldn’t see him. She was sixteen, a year younger than him, and still training to be a hairdresser. He’d spent an hour pacing, wondering if she’d actually come. She’d lied to her parents about where she was going and turned up just before eight.
Anyone else, he’d have jacked them in after last night. But there was something about her that stopped him. There was a freshness, a prettiness about her, the wide eyes that always made him smile. In the end they’d snogged on the bed, rubbing against each other. It was strange; it had been enough for him. He’d driven her home in his old Triumph Herald, parking at the end of the street so nobody see.
Mark shook his head. He was going soft. He was bloody well falling for her.
The bus out to Roundhay Park was late. He spent the journey checking his watch, hoping he’d arrive in time. For his own sake.
Bloody February. It was cold enough to freeze your bollocks off. Mark pulled the greatcoat tight against himself and hurried round the lake as the flares flapped around his ankles and his boots kept slipping on the hard earth. All the way to the other end, of course. Far from prying eyes, just the way Ellis liked it.
He’d followed the orders, taken a day’s holiday from work, left the car at home and used the bus. The man was so fussy that it was like listening to an old woman. He could see him now, sitting on his usual bench, tossing breadcrumbs from a plastic bag to the ducks gathered close in the water. His minder, Davy Sands, was twenty yards away, standing at the edge of a grove of trees, eyes watching everything carefully.
Johnson settled on the seat, took a packet of Embassy from his pocket and lit one, feeling the smoke warm his lungs.
‘Good morning, Mr. Ellis,’ he said.
The man threw a final handful of crumbs, folded the bag and put it in the pocket of his donkey jacket. Jimmy Ellis had a whole wardrobe full of suits from Austin Reed, Mark knew that. He’d seen them. And he still dressed like a bloody navvy. Jacket, flat cap, thick sweater, old jeans and steel cap boots. Fifty if he was a day, successful, and happy to put on a labourer’s costume. It didn’t make any sense. Ellis pushed back the sleeve slowly and glanced at his watch.
‘You’re ten minutes late.’
‘I’m sorry, Mr. Ellis, the bus-‘
‘Excuses.’ He turned and stared. He didn’t need more than a single word. His eyes were blue and empty; look in them and there was nothing. No pleasure, no sorrow, just a void. ‘Next time make bloody well sure you’re on time.’
‘Yes, Mr. Ellis.’ He ducked his head quickly.
‘Look at you, you’re like one of those fucking hippies. What are those you’re wearing, anyway?’ He nodded at the trousers.
‘Loon pants,’ Mark began to explain, but Ellis turned his head and he shut up. He knew better. He’d been doing little jobs for the man since he left school, two years now. Long enough to see what happened to anyone who didn’t treat him with respect.
Ellis brought an envelope from his jacket pocket and tossed it onto Johnson’s lap.
‘Open it and you’ll find out, won’t you?’ The older man sighed. ‘I thought you had brains, with all those O-levels, an’ all.’
Johnson ripped the paper, sorting through a passport and some twenty-pound notes. He didn’t even try to count them, just looked at Ellis with questions in his eyes.
‘This passport,’ he said, ‘it’s got the wrong name on it.’
The man gazed at him as though he was simple. ‘No, it doesn’t. I had it made special for you. You’re taking a little trip.’
Mark could feel the twinge of the pulse in his neck. He drew deeply on the cigarette.
‘Costa Brava,’ Ellis continued. ‘Take the train over to Manchester tomorrow and fly from there. I’ve given you enough for your fare and somewhere to stay. Just two days,’ he warned. ‘I’m not paying for a bloody holiday. Back on Friday.’
Yes, Mr. Ellis,’ he agreed quickly. He’d need to ring Pam; they were supposed to be going out to the flicks on Thursday night. He’d offer her something better for Friday. ‘What do you want me to do there?
‘There’s a bloke I know, he has a house there. Had, by the time you come back. Got it?’
Mark nodded, trying to hide a smile. He’d done a few torch jobs for the boss before. Businesses and warehouses. But they’d all been local. He was moving up in the world.
‘Right,’ Ellis said. ‘Everything is in the envelope, address and there’s a map. I’ll see you right on payment once you’re back.’ He gripped Mark’s wrist, his fingers tight enough to hurt. ‘And don’t bugger it up.’
‘I won’t. What’ll I tell them at work?’
‘Ring up and say you’re poorly.’
Two days, it wouldn’t matter. The gaffer would moan, but that would be the end of it.
‘Right,’ Mark agreed hurriedly. ‘Do you want me to ring you when I’m back and tell you how it went?’
Ellis turned the empty eyes on him‘ No need, lad. If you bugger it up, I’ll be the last person you want to talk to. If I went well, I’ll hear about it.’ He waited a moment. ‘Off you go then, on your way.’