Read The First Novels: Pay Off, the Fireman Online
Authors: Stephen Leather
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Crime, #Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Crime Fiction
Stephen Leather: The First Novels
Copyright © 1987 by Stephen Leather
The right of Stephen Leather to be identified as the author
of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in Great Britain in 1987 by Fontana
Coronet edition 1997
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be
reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted,
in any form or by any means without the prior written
permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated
in any form of binding or cover other than that in which
it is published and without a similar condition being
imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious
and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead,
is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available
from the British Library
Epub ISBN 9781844568666
Book ISBN 9780340672235
Hodder and Stoughton Ltd
A division of Hodder Headline PLC
338 Euston Road
London NW1 3BH
Only a mother could have loved the bearded, brooding face of Get-Up McKinley. Only someone with vast amounts of maternal instinct to draw on, who’d changed his nappy and breastfed him through countless sleepless nights, could have seen him as anything other than a nasty piece of work, mean, moody and malevolent. But even McKinley’s own mother would have been wary of this glowering man-mountain whose face matched the grainy picture in the newspaper cutting I’d folded and unfolded time and time again in a succession of East End pubs, until the newsprint was grimy and smeared and I’d had to repair its tattered edges with Sellotape.
I’d watched him over the top of my chipped glass, studied his reflection in the mirror behind the crowded gantry, and walked close by him to the toilet. I was sure it was him long before I heard the acne-ridden young barman call him by name.
McKinley was standing in the professional drinker’s pose, his feet shoulder width apart, his knees locked, his left hand resting on the beer-stained bar while the right held his glass, elbow crooked and parallel to the ground, the whisky emptied down the throat with a flick of the wrist, an economy of movement that a conjuror would have envied.
How do you describe six feet four inches of grizzly bear in a green corduroy jacket? I guess that’s a good start, but you’d also need to throw in a few simple adjectives like big and ugly, and try to get across the barely-suppressed aggression of the man. McKinley was angry, very angry, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the hand on the bar which was clenching and unclenching like a rattlesnake about to strike.
I’d spent three long weeks sniffing at McKinley’s trail, but I was in no position to speak to him, not yet. Give me an asbestos suit and a couple of SAS-trained bodyguards and maybe I’d have been brave enough to approach him. Maybe, but don’t hold your breath. McKinley wasn’t in a particularly receptive frame of mind just then.
The source of his displeasure was a couple of young drunks, neither good-hearted nor bad, just boisterous and rowdy, leather-jacketed, flush with drink and youth. The taller of the two had twice knocked McKinley’s drinking arm, the second time hard enough to spill his drink. Not deliberate, you understand, but that wasn’t the point, not as far as McKinley was concerned, anyway.
There’s an elaborate procedure to be followed when you spill somebody’s drink, and it depends on the sort of pub you’re in. If it happens in one of the trendy Fulham wine bars you smile politely and say how awfully sorry you are, OK yah? And you joke and it’s forgotten. In your average suburban pub you apologize and offer to buy another, an offer which is always refused, and it’s relaxed and friendly. If it happens in an inner-city drinking den, the sort of men-only places you find in Glasgow, Birmingham, Liverpool and the East End of London, anywhere the unemployment rate is high and the black economy booming, then the politeness is exaggerated, the apologies ritualistic, just in case the drunk you’re dealing with is a dangerous drunk.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Can I get you another?’
We were in Kelly’s Bar in Leyton, and it’s fair to say that it isn’t my normal sort of London drinking establishment; no ice or lemon to go in my G and T, overflowing ashtrays, one underworked barman paid for by the YTS who was doing nothing to quieten the two rowdies as he gave a few half-washed pint mugs a casual wipe with a grubby cloth and placed a full bottle of lemonade on the bar, just out of McKinley’s reach. No, my sort of place was about six miles or so due west, in the City or the West End, where they know the difference between a Wallbanger and a Sloe Comfortable Screw, where you need a collar and tie to get in and a full wallet to enjoy yourself, where noisy drunks don’t bump into dangerous drunks and trouble is nipped in the bud.
Everyone called McKinley Get-Up because of an unfortunate incident that happened almost seven years ago, seven years which he’d spent in Wormwood Scrubs cooped up with prisoners who went to a lot of trouble to be nice to him.
At the age of twenty-nine he’d found his vocation as a bodyguard-cum-thug protecting a wholesale drugs dealer who arranged for heroin and cocaine to be brought in from Amsterdam, Ireland, or America, anywhere he could get it, and mixed it with talc or sugar or whatever white powder was floating about before selling it on to smaller dealers.
It was cash and carry and the seventy-five per cent profit margin was more than enough to pay McKinley a decent wage. His downfall came when the drugs dealer decided to branch out and put up the money for an armed robbery.
Three up and coming young villains had made him an offer he hadn’t wanted to refuse. If he put up two thousand pounds for the shotguns, the getaway car and other expenses, he would be in for half of whatever they got from the superstore in Hackney they’d been casing for the best part of two weeks, and they reckoned the take could be as high as £65,000.
The three geniuses behind the plan were Alvin Miller, Dick Wallace and Charlie Leonard, three ne’er-do-wells whose combined IQ was less than the tube fare from Clapham Common to Clapham South.
They’d already done over a couple of filling stations and a post office with flick knives and hatchets, but the money had been frittered away. Now they reckoned they were ready for the Big Time, but for that they needed a stake. Ronnie Laing, McKinley’s boss, was just the man to help three youngsters along the path to riches. For a price.