The north wind blew dust off the coal yard against the rusted door of the car. Jack rested against the vehicle and felt the cold metal through the thin denim of his jacket. He shook tobacco from a dented tin into paper trembling in the breeze, then licked and made the cigarette, scraped a match against its box and sparked up. His white hair fluttered beneath a ball cap stained by sweat and diesel. He squinted over piles of frosty coal to the light place where the sun was due. His nephew was late.
The tobacco was cheap and bitter strands stuck to his ice-stricken lip. He spat and looked over at the high rushing water of the stream beyond the yard. Snowmelt from the mountains pushed the water over black rocks topped with ice. He heard a whistle and looked along the tattered wire fence. The boy was coming with the gun. His name was Gray, and Jack Stafford thought it a stupid name to inflict upon any child, but his sister would never be swayed on anything once she’d set her mind to it. ‘You’re late,’ Jack said.
Gray shrugged. He carried a double barrel shotgun cracked open over his shoulder. It was old. ‘You got any shells for this thing?’ He grabbed the weapon, sighted down the open barrels. The metal was so cold it burned his bare fingers. Gray said nothing. Jack looked up at him with hard blue eyes. The cigarette hung from his lower lip and smoked into the breeze as he waited.
Gray looked down at his feet. ‘I thought we were just gonna scare him.’
‘And nothing’s scarier than a loaded gun an inch away from yer fuckin’ face, son, loaded being the important part of that sentence.’
‘I could only find one.’ He handed the shell over.
Jack squinted at it. ‘Well, at least now we’re set.’
They drove up out of the valley as the sky paled. The land was black, hard, and wet beneath the ice-blue dawn. Gray drove. His dirty hair was some shade between brown and blond and hung down the back of his long neck from beneath a knitted cap. He chewed his lip as he drove. ‘Your mother doing all right?’ Jack said.
‘Told me to keep away from you.’
‘She always was the smart one.’
‘Said you got Uncle Frank killed.’
‘Frank,’ Jack smiled. ‘They always said we had bad blood and bad luck.’ He looked out of the window at the mine buildings they were passing, grey steel patterned by rust and rain and dirt blown from the hills. ‘I haven’t thought about Frank for a long time.’
‘She said you were the one should have been killed.’
‘That was kind of her.’
‘Said you ran and left Frank.’
‘He could have run too.’
They drove empty roads; the land was black beneath snow-filled clouds and the wind blew wild from the hills. Jack indicated a dirty clay track on the right. ‘Stop the car.’ The radio fell silent and the engine growled into sleep. Gray’s hands shook as he lit a Marlboro. Jack stared at the cigarette packet and said, ‘And I thought times were hard? Where d’you get the ready-rolled?’
‘I found some money.’
‘Must have been a nice surprise; don’t count on too many of them.’ The pain hit him in the side; he winced hard and grabbed the space under his ribs where his body was killing itself.
Gray noted the old man’s attitude. ‘Hurt much?’
‘I tell you something; God has a cold heart. You come back into the world after 10 years staring at bars and get told the future you were counting on just got a lot fucking shorter.’ He threw a handful of pills down his throat, washed them down with a hit from a battered whisky flask. ‘Now come on.’
Sophie Anne laid her daughter in the Moses basket and looked back to her father, sleeping in a rocking chair. The baby had cried most of the night, kept the house awake. She tied back her bleached hair with an elastic band and kicked his foot. ‘Old man,’ she said, ‘you’ll be late.’
He mumbled something she could not hear, and then rubbed his face with a paw like hand, his eyes still closed. She heard the calloused skin rub over the bristles of his grey moustache. ‘I’m up,’ he said. ‘I need a smoke.’
She stepped into the kitchen and started tipping cheap no-brand coffee into a damp filter. ‘You promised you’d stopped all that.’
‘So I did, honey.’
She shouted through from the kitchen. ‘You expect anyone?’
‘There’s a man outside.’
Her father, whose name was Tony, pulled his frame from the chair, padded through to the kitchen, and glanced at the clock above the electric oven; it was coming up on 6 AM. ‘Who the hell is it?’ He peered through the greasy window at Gray Stafford, standing in the yard between a broken generator and a mouldering tool shed. He wore a dirty jacket Tony recognised though it was missing the mining company logo. The fabric was darker where it had been. He was tying a bandana round his face. ‘Sophie, get the baby and get upstairs.’
‘Stay right where you are.’ Shotgun hammers clicked back; the sound was brittle, like arthritic knuckles cracking. Sophie turned and looked straight into Jack Stafford’s rheumy blue eyes, hidden behind a wolf man Halloween mask. He coughed, and then whispered, ‘You should really lock your door, Big Tony; never know who might be passing on these hills. Might be someone looking to huff and puff and blow your house down.’ He held the gun level, aiming it at Sophie Anne rather than her father.
Tony moved himself in front of his daughter, slowly. ‘Who is that?’ He said. Sweat ran down his round face. ‘I know that voice, who is that?’
‘Boy,’ Jack yelled, turning his head towards the door but keeping his eyes locked on the girl, ‘come in here.’
There was a bang as Gray slammed the door behind him He was breathing fast.
‘What do you want?’ Tony asked.
‘Just what’s owed,’ Jack answered, holding the gun level, aimed at the Moses basket now. ‘You’re gonna be real co-operative from here on.’
Jack snorted, and then peeled the mask from his face with his free hand. ‘Couldn’t breathe in that thing anyhow.’
‘You can’t roll up in a man’s house like this.’
‘You only got one thing in this world worth anything, and that’s your entry code to that safe at the store.’
Tony sighed and lowered his hands. ‘I … can’t, I can’t do that.’
‘Now we’re taking the girl and the kid,’ Jack said, ‘and I want you to bring me every cent in that box by tonight.’ He coughed. ‘I’ve nothing left to lose.’
‘I don’t have any codes for the safe.’
‘Don’t bullshit me.’
‘I don’t. It doesn’t work like that, Jack. Christ, how long you been inside? It’s not the old days. They’d never let me near that fucking safe.’
Jack passed the gun to Gray, then walked across and punched Tony in the face. Sophie began to cry. Coals popped on the fire as Jack beat Tony and then Jack started to cough.
Tony shot to his feet with a yell, grabbed hold of the older man and span him on the living room floor. Jack spluttered, his face turning blue as he fought for a breath that wouldn’t come, he waved towards his nephew, urging him to action.
Gray yelled something, raised the gun and fired without aiming. The shot echoed like the last word of god through the smoke-hung room and Gray rubbed his eyes, with the back of a free hand, trying to see through the chaos. His Uncle Jack lay on the floor, most of his head gone. Sophie grabbed the crying baby and ran from the room, screaming for help as her father wiped the blood mist from his eyes. Gray stared, frozen, as the older man grabbed the gun from his hands and looked down at the broken wreck ruining his living room floor. ‘That dumb bastard,’ he said, wiping blood from his lip with a shaking hand. He cracked open the shotgun, ejected the shells. ‘All you boys was always unlucky fucking idiots. Coming out here to rob something you can’t rob and then getting shot by his own bad blood.’
‘His brother went the same way, run over by this dumb fuck making a getaway from a hold-up.’ He looked down at Gray, who was paralysed, his gaze stuck to the bloody, quivering mess before him.
‘I didn’t mean to shoot,’ he mumbled, ‘the gun went off on its own.’
‘Now that, son, they don’t do. There’s always got to be some idiot on the trigger. Turned out to be you today. Now you sit and we’ll wait.’ Big Tony grinned, feeling strangely young, feeling a way he hadn’t for so long he couldn’t remember. He looked at the last remaining Stafford man and asked, ‘You got anything to smoke?’
Gareth Spark is a writer and artist from the wilds of North Yorkshire. His work has appeared at Out Of The Gutter, Line Zero Shotgun Honey and many more journals and ‘zines. He is currently working on his second novel and will one day make a film for less than £50.