Read Painkillers Online

Authors: Simon Ings

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General

Painkillers (2 page)

BOOK: Painkillers
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I said, 'I don't know what it is you think you're running from.'

Not strictly true: in May 1997 an investigation into the murder of senior Hong Kong movie executive James Yau Sau-Lan stumbled across a money laundering operation.

Yau's company, Top Luck Investments, was established in 1989 to finance Cantonese film production in Hong Kong. In 1992 Top Luck floated its film interests on the Hong Kong stock exchange. They even made movies: an output one film critic called 'pre-eminently forgettable, but pure box-office'. So far, so good. The problem came when you looked at the company's annual turnover. 50 million unaccounted-for US dollars passed through Top Luck's books every year.

It wasn't the first time difficult questions had been asked of Top Luck. As long ago as 1991, an audit report had been ordered on the company at the offices of the Serious Crime Group. The report, which I had compiled and Hamley countersigned, drew only the most ambiguous and tentative conclusions, however, and Top Luck was left free to trade.

The shocking and violent death of its managing director ended Top Luck's run of remarkable - well luck. When it was revealed in court just how gently Hong Kong law enforcement had treated the company over the years, an enquiry was inevitable.

True, it should have been me giving evidence at the inquiry. But nothing in my behaviour since could possibly arouse suspicion. I served out my time, as shabby and undistinguished as countless others. Come the handover of the colony to the People's Republic, I handed in my badge and slogged my way over to Chek Lap Kok with the rest of the aparatchiks.

It was Hamley, my superior, who had fled so suddenly and inexplicably, and several months before his time, and it was hardly surprising that the enquiry's suspicions had fallen first on him. I tried pointing this out to him, but it didn't do any good. He wasn't much interested in talking. I don't know what he expected to get out of this meeting, and I don't think he knew either, which of course could made him even more frustrated. I don't remember much about what happened next, except that it got physical. In the end I had to throw the Dettol in his face.

I ran water in the sink for him to bathe his eyes, then I went and looked out a towel for him in the cupboard under the stairs. When I got back I found the kitchen empty and the water still sloshing about weakly in the sink. I heard a car pulling away from the kerb. I ran to the door in time to see the reflections of his brake lights gutter and die in the puddles of the opposite pavement. I rubbed my neck. I thought maybe he'd twisted it, but it felt okay now. I went back inside and fished the Wray & Nephew out of the hole in the back of the cupboard under the sink. The bottle was half full. I looked at my watch: I had about half an hour before Eva turned up. So I finished it.


By the time she arrived I'd wiped down the tables, mopped the floors, and arranged the packet teas in attractive pyramids in front of the window. But I hadn't even begun to clear the paper liners from out the counter, and I'd clean forgotten to scrub out the juicer. Carrot sediment had dribbled and set on the chrome in dirty orange streaks.

'I can't leave you to do any bloody thing,' she said, scrubbing the sheen off the metal with a scourer.

'Leave it to soak for a couple of minutes, darling.'

She dropped it into the sink, knocked the remaining pieces in after it, and tore off her gloves. Her eyes darted about the kitchen, as she hunted for signs of catastrophe.

'I washed the floor in here,' I offered.

'I didn't think it needed it,' she said.

'It was busy today. We're nearly out of sausage.'

'I told you to buy more last Saturday.'

'How were the roads?'

She went back to the till. 'Haven't you cashed up yet?'

'I haven't had the chance,' I said, hating the whine in my voice.

She started scooping change out of the till and onto the worktop in short, compulsive jerks. She scraped pennies into her palm, counting them much like a Macanese croupier deals cards in the Jai-Alai: with an expression somewhere between boredom and contempt. I watched her fingers curl and jerk. She wore her nails short now, and even so one of them had torn. The skin on that side of her finger was inflamed.

'That can wait,' I said, wanting her to look at me, even if it meant a confrontation.

'Don't tell me what to do.'

'Look at me,' I said.

She looked at me. 'What?' she said.

She was my age: twenty-six when we first met. But nothing that had happened in the years since had changed her the way it had changed me, or Hamley. The crows' feet at the corners of her almond eyes were still the suggestive, bedroomy hints I remembered from our first meeting. Her skin was still sound and white: the proverbial porcelain of Orientalist fantasy. Only her hands had changed, coarsened by her work at the cafe - but that was nothing a little cream and a return to our old life wouldn't cure.


Her mouth was small, her lips full and puckered: when she was younger she used a dark lipstick to make them appear bruised, an eruption of something absurdly sensual at the centre of that perfect sloe-eyed mask.

I said, 'I think the Japs must have put us in a guide. They like our teas.'

She started counting the silver.

'They come here after matinees at the Globe.'

'I'm counting,' she said.

'Twelve,' I said, plucking a number out of the air.

She flapped a hand at me to shut up.

'Six,' I shouted. 'Twenty-four. Plus three.'

'The cakes are in the boot,' she said, not missing a beat. 'Let's not be here all night.'

Our Mazda Xedos was parked opposite. Its silver skin, so striking in the day, reflected back the sodium-lit surfaces of the street like a fly-spotted mirror. I got all the way to the boot before I remembered the keys. Eva had them. Had she watched me, traipsing out here like an idiot? I went back inside. 'I need the keys.'

'Oh - ' She pressed a fistful of coins to her forehead, as though the close contact might help her remember what they came to. But it had gone out of her head. She slapped the coins back on the counter with a bang. Several went spinning off and disappeared behind the worktop.

'Sorry,' I said.

She fished in her pocket and threw her keys in my general direction. 'Ta,' I said, for all the good it did. In the boot there were stacks of flat square boxes: the sturdy, corrugated cardboard ones contained pecan pies and apple tartins and carrot cakes so juicy and fatty you could hardly cut them without the whole thing collapsing into a gooey mess. The thin white ones held rounds of brie. There was a carrier full of large paper packets of coffee beans, and the smell coming out of it was so heady and spicy I stuck my head in the bag for thirty seconds of pleasurable hyperventilation. I slung the carrier round my wrist and carried the brie in on top of a stack of cake boxes.

Eva was bagging up the money at last. I dropped the boxes and the bag on the worktop beside her. She walked past me and out into the road. I followed her. 'I'm quite happy to unload,' I said. She reached into the boot, took hold of a stack and then stuck there. 'Oh fuck it,' she said.




She hoisted the boxes out of the boot and made for the cafe. She was holding them away from her as though they were dirty. They wobbled precariously.

'Let me,' I said. I made to take them from her.

She swerved to avoid me, staggering to keep the pile upright.


'I can manage.'

I glanced into the boot. Something had leaked onto the plastic sheet lining the boot. I ran my finger through the goo and licked it. It was honey.

When I got back inside, Eva had gone through to the kitchen. I looked for an excuse to follow her. The coffee needed decanting so I took the carrier of beans through. Eva was scrubbing her hands under the hot tap. I edged around her to get to the shelf with the coffee jars. Normally I used the little stepladder but Eva was in the way. I reached up on tiptoe for the first tin. But there was more in it than I expected; it came down too fast and I dropped it. It bounced once. The lid sprang off. Beans shot all over the floor. Foam span off Eva's hands as she wheeled around. 'You bloody oaf.'

I knelt and felt under the sink for the dustpan and brush. They weren't in the usual corner. I reached further in.

Eva stepped towards me, poised for the kill. 'Needing another tipple?' she said. I backed out the cupboard and looked up at her.

She said, 'I know where you keep it.'

'I'm simply looking for the dustpan and brush,' I said.

She laughed: it was the closest she ever came to screaming. 'Adam, I can smell it on your breath.' I watched her, showing nothing, until she had to look away. She looked up at the ceiling instead, haughty as a Noel Coward heroine. 'At least have the decency to switch to something tasteless,' she said.

'Vodka. Now isn't that what people usually do?'

Eva turned everything that pained her into social comedy. It made it hard to take her seriously. I got out the dustpan and brush. Eva went back to bagging up day's takings. When she finally returned, arms laden with little plastic bags of change, I was pouring the beans I'd rescued back into the tin.

'I told you I washed the floor,' I said. 'What's the problem?'


Back home, as usual, Boots got under my feet. I sat at the kitchen table with the day's post, kicking him out of the way. He took it well. What a game! Scrabbling for purchase on the terracotta, chewing my shoelaces...

'Oh for fuck's - '

'Bootsie! Come here.' Eva knelt at the foot of the stairs, arms extended towards him. He ignored her. He growled, terrorising my shoe.

It was all junk mail. I tore it up and threw it in the bin, turned and tripped over the dog.

'Oh for God's sake feed him, can't you see he's hungry?' Eva straightened up. Her hand shook as she gripped the banister. 'I'm going up to change.'

Boots gave her a cursory glance as she climbed the stairs, heels clicking on the unpolished boards.

'Stupid sod,' I told him, when she was gone. 'You're supposed to be hers.' Boots wagged his tail. I went over to the fridge and took a half-empty can of shit from the door. He scampered over to his bowl and looked up at me with his big cow eyes, ready for our Big Bonding Experience. I emptied out the can into the bowl. He let go a big grateful fart.

I poured myself a Coke and, hearing Eva ascend the carpeted stairs to our bedroom, spiked it with rum from the bottle on top of the Welsh dresser. I sat back down at the table, drank off half, and tried to put my head back together. Even Boots got bored, I sat there so long, and eventually he hauled his way out of the room.

I watched him go, scratching up the wooden staircase Dad and I had built. Out in the garage, wrapped in greaseproof paper in the drawer of an old chest, sat the beeswax blocks we had bought, the day we had hammered in the last nail. We figured it would take about a week to rub all that wax into the raw pine, and give Eva the antique effect that she wanted. From where I was sitting, I could see the shiny pool where my dad had started the job.


I came to with a start. I hadn't heard her come down. I was lost in memories, she had taken off her shoes, and besides, we'd done too good a job, Dad and I - not a board on that staircase that squeaked. I turned and read the clock over the fridge. It was half past midnight. She came over, took the bottle from the table and screwed the cap on. 'Where does this one live?'

I nodded at the dresser.

Maybe she figured something really was wrong; maybe she was just too tired to fight. She didn't say anything, just put the bottle back where it belonged, then folded up a couple of jumpers that were drying on chairs near the washing machine. She folded them up and dropped them onto the bottom step, ready to take them up to the bedroom when she was done here.


But she was miles away, off in Tidy-up Land. Her own drear little vice. There were some cups on the draining board. She checked they were dry, then she put them away. Boots had finished his shit. She put on rubber gloves, washed his bowl under the hot tap and set it to drain.

'For fuck's sake,' I said.

I'd left the rest of my junk mail and empty envelopes on the table. She sorted through them, choosing what to keep, what to throw away.

I nudged my empty cola glass to the edge of the table. Stuck out a forefinger. Tapped the rim. The glass shattered at my feet.

Eva, who was far too well bred ever to show a hit, crossed smoothly to the stairs, picked up the jumpers and slapped her way back to the bedroom.

I looked at the glass shards, glinting on the terracotta tiles Dad and I had laid. About an hour later I got around to sweeping them up, and a little after that I turned off the lights. The bedroom curtains were very thin and I could see well enough to undress without waking Eva. The trouble began when I tried to get Boots off the bed. He was stretched out on my side like he owned the place. 'Piss off.' I nudged him. He woke and wagged his tail.


He growled happily, paddling the bed like a cat.

'Shut up.'

He lay down again, still on my spot. The room stank of him.


I left them to it, got the spare duvet out of the airing cupboard and laid it out on the sofa in the living room. In the bathroom, I sucked water from the tap and swallowed a couple of vitamin B. Closing the cabinet door, I caught sight of myself in the mirror.

Recently, faced with my thinning hair, metallic-grey cheeks, and thickening nails, I had begun to feel as though time were shuttling me off indifferently, eager to be done. Tonight I had something else to worry about.

There were red marks round my neck, where Hamley had seized me. An unmistakable pattern. By morning they would be bruises.

I sneaked back into the bedroom. They were both asleep again. Boots was laid up against Eva's arse, whimpering softly. Good on you, I thought. Pity you can't like her when she's awake. I dug out a turtle-neck from the cupboard and took it with me into the living room. That way, in the morning, Eva wouldn't see the marks.

BOOK: Painkillers
3.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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