Thursday, June 23, 2005

Have a story.

(This, incidentally, is my first evar fiction post on the Rhexis. It's a short, ~3,500-word tale inspired by Alfred Noyes' poem The Highwayman. Hope you enjoy it.)


By Oscillating Hazelnut, June 2005

Martin Smith trundled down the Kingsway at half past eight on a thoroughly unimpressive Tuesday morning. The sort of morning that is more made of base metal than of gold. Grey. Slightly overcast. Wet. The Today programme exposing the latest government scandal (something about a mid-level Labour party minister caught embezzling public money and spending it on a half-million-pound luxury home) on the radio. The usual steel and aluminium sewage that was London traffic with its stench of smoke reduced his speed enough that he considered whether he really needed a flashy Mercedes-Benz sports coupe as there was just the one of him, and that progress down the street would be more fuel-efficient if he just got out and pushed. So all things considered, a very average morning.

Well, he would have considered it average up until the point at which he heard a gunshot about ten feet behind him, which prompted just about everyone stuck in the ubiquitous London traffic to turn round and gasp in shock. After all, commuters only believed that shootings took place after dark in “The Smoke.” What he saw was quite, quite, quite, out of the ordinary indeed, for approaching his window was a thick-set man riding a slightly decrepit – but serviceable - Harley-Davidson motorbike, wearing a black trenchcoat, jeans, heavy boots, and no helmet… but with a thoroughly anachronistic 17th-century era flintlock pistol in his hand.

“Ahh, what have we here?” asked the motorcyclist in a mildly amused tone as he thrust his weapon into the previously undefiled confines of Martin’s car. “Your money or your life.”

Martin was quite taken aback by this, as, most likely, were the hundred or so other commuters in the vicinity, several of whom had already, quite in contravention of the law, picked up their mobile phones to call the police about an armed robbery in process on the Kingsway. Struck dumb with terror, he reached into his jacket pocket and handed over his wallet, thick with banknotes, spare change, credit cards including an extremely exclusive Morgan Stanley Dean Witter “BLACK” card with a half-million pound credit limit, loyalty cards, driving licences, photos of his family, and suchlike.

“You’ll not get away with this, damn you,” Martin growled. “Those cards are useless without the passwords, you’re wasting your time!”

“I’ve thought of that,” said the highwayman. “Your pin numbers or your life,” he ordered, producing a notepad and pencil from his jeans pocket.

Martin contemplated the blank page for a few seconds, aghast.

“And now I know where you live,” continued the highwayman, examining Martin’s driving licence, and revealing his address to be 11 Waverley Road, Golders Green, “if any of those cards don’t work, I’ll go round your house and unblock your ears with my pistol, see if I don’t!”

Martin wrote down a series of four digits for each card, including his precious “BLACK” card with its half-million pound credit limit.

“Thank you, kind sir,” said the highwayman, and with a screeching of tyres he and his motorbike sped off through the traffic, weaving in twin plumes of smoke and dust between the other motorists.

Due to the traffic, bureaucracy, and the fact that half of Scotland Yard were attending a mandatory conference on race relations and equal opportunities within the police force for minorities and women, it was almost nine o’clock before any sirens were heard approaching inexorably to the crime scene, and the highwayman was long gone, much to the chagrin of Martin Smith, whose mobile phone’s battery just decided that moment to give up the ghost so he couldn’t ring the bank to cancel his cards.

“Fuck,” he swore.

About nine o’clock that evening, a ten-year-old (yet, thanks to Martin Smith’s bank account, reconditioned to almost new) Harley-Davidson motorcycle spluttered up in front of a small pub in the depths of Wapping named The Prospect of Whitby, and off said motorbike clambered a tall, heavily-built gentleman who, if Martin Smith had had the Prospect as his local pub, would have immediately been recognised as the same robber who relieved him of his wallet and pin numbers that morning. Entering the pub, he circumspected, the floor so familiar under his booted feet, which knew every individual bump and contour of it from intense familiarity with the establishment. And he strode up to the bar, his ruggedly handsome face and hearty smile warming the regard of the barmaid as she noticed him.

“Heya sweetie,” she greeted him, kissing him briefly on the cheek. “What can I get you?” She had long black hair tied back with a blood-red ribbon which he had given her as a love token two moons past.

“I think, beloved, I shall have my usual,” he replied.

“Oohh, so what is it you’re drinking these days? Fuller’s Pride isn’t it?” the barmaid asked.

“That it is,” the highwayman confirmed.

“Won’t you try something else for a change?” she joked.

“I’d best not,” he said, grinning. “You do remember, love, what happened when I tried that Asahi or whatever it was?”

“Oohh yes,” she grinned. What had happened was that he had pulled a face which, if her mother had seen her potential son-in-law’s aspect at the time, she would have told him that if the wind changed he’d stick like that forever. Then he’d spat it out onto the bar-top in a golden brown spray, causing a nearby builder who was enjoying his pint next to him to give him very dirty looks indeed.

So Lizzie, for that was her name, passed him a nice frothy pint of dark beer and asked him for the £1.60 she was due.

The highwayman reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out thick wads of banknotes fresh from Martin Smith’s bank account, smiling rakishly.

“Ooohh! John Myrick, you devil, where you get all that?” she squealed in excitement. “Where did you get all that?” she shrieked.

John, the highwayman, took her hands and leant close to her, looking into her big, dark eyes. “Ask ye no questions,” he said confidentially, “and tell ye no lies.”

“Oh go on,” needled Lizzie. “Did you rob a bank?”

John but smiled, and motioned her to come closer. “I might have done,” he whispered in her ear. Lizzie squirmed with excitement and charm.

Lizzie Williams was the perfect woman for the highwayman, he thought to himself. He loved women like her – pretty, easily charmed, romantic… and brain dead. The sort of woman who could be won over with dashing exploits and panache and charm, yet who could not bring herself to tip off any of the authorities about his exploits. Of course, he had the utmost respect for women; never would he dream of beating or causing deliberate harm to any lover of his. He preferred to bribe them with ill-gotten gifts from his ill-gotten gains. Rings, jewelry, expensive designer dresses and hand-crafted Belgian liqueur chocolates. Diamonds and rubies, possibly even a brand-new Bentley if the haul was big enough. It had worked so many times before.

It had also gone wrong once or twice, but if you valued your life you wouldn’t ask him about those times.

At precisely eleven o’clock, the landlord, who was also Lizzie’s father, an honest cockney working-class type named Jim, rang the bell and bellowed out across the crowded, smoky bar, “Time please gentlemen!”

At precisely eleven-oh-two, Lizzie ducked behind the bar and showed John the way up to the back rooms of the pub, which was also where Lizzie resided.

John threw off his weighty leather jacket onto an old but serviceable armchair Lizzie kept in the corner of her bedroom, and she leapt into his arms and mashed her lips against his. After all, it didn’t do to exhibit flagrant and passionate abandon in public, not even these days, even if neither of them had noticed that both the windows – and curtains – were flapping wide open. On the one hand, though, it allowed into the bedroom the pleasantly brisk night air which cooled their brows, hot and wet with the sweat of eager anticipation; yet on the other hand it allowed officious bystanders to blimp at their confounding of each other with each others’ bodies.

Not that they minded, considering that videotaping the goings on in an upstairs pub window in the depths of East London after chucking out time would probably get the offender beaten to a bloody pulp, and John and Lizzie knew that of all people. After all, this was very much the local pub of Sun readers. Back inside the air-cooled room, whose aged panel-flooring was bumpy and lumpy where air bubbles and damp had warped it, the highwayman and his woman had progressed to the tearing each others’ clothes off stage.

After all, Lizzie was overjoyed at her gentleman (thief) friend’s new-found wealth, and somewhere in the deepest recesses of her self, a rusty and ancient biological switch marked “Gold Digging” had somehow creaked itself into the “on” position, and she was determined to milk Martin Smith’s credit cards for all they were worth before their previous and rightful owner cancelled them. Already, visions of Gucci dresses and Louis Vuitton thongs and Prada shoes and Fiorelli handbags were dancing invitingly in front of her eyes, which could also be said for John Myrick’s manhood. Quite the coincidence, in her mind at least; after all, one ought to lead to the other in this instance.

Lizzie made to lower her sights, but he stopped her rather abruptly.

“Not tonight, I have a headache,” he joked.

Lizzie giggled back, “That’s my line!”

At this, the rogue allowed her to continue, and continue she did.

Now the first thing that one would notice about Andrea Dawkins, the local traffic warden in that particular enclave was that she was short. Five feet and no inches short, to be exact. But what she lacked in stature she made up for in bulk and hardness, and as such resembled a body-building elf, if that particular elf had completely gone to seed other than the iron-pumping for the past decade and was now reduced from being Mr Enchanted Forest to Mr Novelty Gnome Factory.

The other way in which she made up for her physical shortcomings was by the use of an officious and misanthropic streak about six miles wide, the gratuitous deployment of her book of tickets, and by an even bigger chip on her shoulder.

Not to mention a tremendous lust for Lizzie the barmaid at the Prospect.

So it was with extreme and malicious satisfaction that she noticed that John Myrick’s Harley was parked (almost) on double yellow lines and had no registration plate. Especially as, briefly glancing into the upper window to reveal the aforementioned John Myrick’s rear end bouncing up and down at quite the pace amid excitable feminine moans, she knew about her dashing rival in lust.

She grinned with sadistic pleasure as she reached under her jacket for a pen and the tools of her trade. Indeed, in writing out the ticket she had to restrain herself from adding “Kebabbing my fancy-woman” in the box for details of offences committed. With a smug grin on her features, she folded the ticket round the bike’s handlebar, and stepped back to feel officious.

As a result, she thus overheard the highwayman and his sweetheart in conversation, albeit punctuated with post-coital gaspings for breath.

“…what do you think of that then, beloved?” he asked her.

“Well… pumpkin…” she giggled. “I’m certainly up for it… in more ways than one!”

“Good to hear it… Then, I’d best get away then. The night is long, and I have work to do…”

“None of which is at all legal, of course, I’ll warrant!” Lizzie replied. Much to her chagrin, Andrea imagined her tousling his shaggy hair playfully at this comment. “You rogue, you…”

“So, watch for me tonight… I swear to you, my love, that I shall be back before the dawn, when we can elope far, far, away, and be together forever and want for nothing!” he said, rather grandiosely. “Martin Smith… whoever you are, whatever you do for a living… I thank you for financing me!”

Andrea could not have possibly believed her luck at this revelation. Her nasty mind, worthy of a petty official such as her, began to formulate a plan that would render that troublesome – lout – of a man that was John Myrick behind bars for a very, very, very long time, and that would render Lizzie hers. Better still, it might even net her a pay rise.

The sound of heavy boots clumping down the antique wooden stairwell inside the bar told Andrea that she should make herself scarce.

John was pissed – in more ways than one – when he returned to his motorcycle to find a parking ticket on its seat.

Although it wasn’t really a problem or anything, given he never really intended to pay any of them, it was the principle. It never used to be like that in the good old days; you could leave your iron horse out in the road tied up and nobody gave a damn. Thanks a million, London City Council. At least the work-to-rule little gobshite hadn’t clamped his mount. That would, at this juncture, have been an unmitigated disaster.

He vroomed off into the black London night, his coat flying behind him like an old 17th-century riding cloak, as Andrea Dawkins extracted her mobile phone to alert the police.

He wondered, on the way to pick up the chests full of Martin’s life savings that he had hidden out in Morden, for how long he would string along Lizzie the dark-haired, simple-minded, naïve and warm-hearted barmaid before he would ditch her. After all, he thrived on action and doing something, the thrill of the chase, the near misses, and the exhilaration of evading the law. You didn’t get that in corruption-rife banana republics, which was one thing you could say for the rainy, sooty, dirty writhing mass of humanity that was London.

Lizzie Williams stayed in bed, bare-breasted in the firelight, quivering with anticipation to when John would return and sequester her off to far-off lands. She had bitten her nails and napped half-heartedly, her dreams invaded by hopes of her and him lounging together somewhere hot and tropical. She had fantasised and all the rest that came with it about him and this life he would lead her into.

Then, in the distance, came the sound. The unmuffled roaring of John’s raw, rough-and-ready motorbike. Or something similar. Sighing with the pleasure that filled every corner of her being and the possibility of running away elsewhere, she ran to the window and looked about excitedly.

Indeed, she was so focused on the roar of a V-twin in the distance that she thought was John that she completely was oblivious to the chuggly thrum of a police van with its sirens off that came from the other direction until the stomping of many pairs of highly polished black shoes ascended her stairwell and burst into her room.

“Nah then nah then,” said the police officer who appeared in charge (because he had the big coat and the badge and peaked cap rather than the tight black jacket and the helmet.) “I am Detective Inspector Halewood, and you, Lizzie Williams, are under arrest on suspicion of aiding and abetting an armed robbery. You do not have to say anything, but anything you fail to say now on which you later rely in your defence may count against you in court. Now, what’s this stash about, eh?” he went on, as a uniformed officer who was young, zealous, and fresh out of Hendon Police College slapped the bracelets on her with a satisfying click as they locked and a self-satisfying smile that clicked on as she was thus restrained.

John Myrick parked his Harley by a disused lock-up garage in Morden. At least it appeared disused, in actuality it was, in fact, his stash and he owned the keys to it. Or at least he was in possession of them.

He dashed across the slippery-when-wet street and tripped, almost landing in an undignified heap on the pavement as his boots slid in the gutter. He extracted the key from his coat pocket and fumbled about with the aged, rusty padlock on the front gate as he frantically tried to turn the key every which way but in the aperture. Eventually the doors creaked open, and in he ran, grabbing a box of crumpled and half-torn banknotes. He ran back to his motorbike, the odd ten or twenty wafting away in the breeze, none of which he noticed. After all, when you have a few million pounds in used notes in your lock-up, who’s going to miss the odd likeness of Her Majesty? Besides, he considered the possibility of a tramp finding the stray currency his idea of “putting something back into the community.”

He stuffed the money into his saddlebags, which gave off a noise like a car running into a wall of feather pillows as the air in the bags was forced out. Just about tethering the unruly papers in said bags, he mounted up, spun in the road, and zoomed back towards Wapping with great velocity, the odd note drifting back into the blackness every few minutes.

The interrogation on the spot in the back rooms of the Prospect of Whitby lasted for some time, with Lizzie completely and defiantly silent, despite the best efforts of the Inspector and his colleagues. Eventually they decided to take her into the van, accompanied by two officers in bulletproof vests and with rifles, just as the unmistakable blowy burr of John Myrick’s motorcycle, combined with its single headlight, rounded the corner.

Instinctively she called out to him, “John! John! Help!”

“Not now dearie,” said the Detective Inspector as he bundled her towards the van with scant regard for her erogenous zones. Instinctively she lunged towards one of the armed officers, making for his rifle. And equally instinctively they clubbed her about the face, neck and body with its butt, followed by a good old fashioned round of what used to be termed “some serious wallop.”

By the end of this session Lizzie lay bleeding, broken and subdued on the dirt-caked floor just as John Myrick’s headlight shone upon the scene.

In shock he swerved way too tightly, and slid off his bike, his thighbone crunching apart as the heavy motorcycle landed on it. His pistol in his hand, screaming in shock to the high heavens. Lizzie did not, after all, look particularly alive as the policemen bundled her into the back of their van. In his wrath he discharged his weapon indiscriminately towards them, his shots gashing gushing red wounds in D I Halewood’s upper arm. Without further ado, the police shot him in the gut and throat where he lay in a legbroke and bloody heap on the tarmac, before clambering into the van and throbbing off into the dark without a second thought.

Ah well, his brain registered. ‘Twas ever thus. In 1760 it was the militia who left him for dead in the mud of the great Northern road. In 2005, the Metropolitan Police left him bleeding in the filth of Wapping Way. And in years to come whoever was responsible for defending law and order would do the same.

As he lay bleeding, the words of his first ever victim sprang to his mind, “You’ll be caught and damned well hung!” Yet in so many decades of his questionable trade, that was yet to happen… despite being shot, stabbed, imprisoned, trampled, run over… he still lived.

Perhaps being caught and damned well hung was his fate… some day?


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