It was a bitterly cold day when the bodies appeared. Not the coldest day of the year, but pretty fucking chilly. The half-cut eyewitness said they floated up from the bottom of Paignton Harbour like bubbles in cheap champagne.
From what I heard, ‘bodies’ was overstating the case – the corpses had been dismembered and wrapped in binbags before they were launched into the murky, oil-streaked saltwater. John Gladman was only identifiable by his grisly dental records. Thomas Nashe by the three missing toes he hacked off in Dartmoor Prison in 1979 to avoid manual labour. The third man was easier to identify: he had his National Insurance number tattooed on his broken neck. His name was Nicholas Saint.
Between them, the three men had a rap sheet that spanned five gold heists, four squalid prisons, three home invasions, two unproven murders and a shotgun cartridge in a palm tree. Naturally, I only found this out later…
The Dirty Lemon.
The man is wider than a grit bin and nearly as short. He’s wearing a voluminous yellow tracksuit and a stoned glaze.
He drops a fat envelope in my lap.
“Christmas has come early this year, motherfucker.”
He leans against my table and takes a hit on his e-cigarette. His pockmarked face creases with pleasure.
“Christmas Pudding flavour. I bought it online. You want some?”
“No thanks, mate.”
He shrugs and gestures towards the painfully thin girl performing the floorshow.
“I had her in the handicapped toilet last year. Fanny like Santa’s sleeve.”
I shake my head as I open the envelope. Inside is a scuffed-looking portable telephone with a cracked screen. There is an elastic band around the phone, holding a newspaper cutting in place.
“Whatever you do don’t lose the fucking handset. It was smuggled out of Channings Wood in two different arseholes – one of them mine.”
I scratch at the crust on the screen with the edge of a beer mat. Is that shit? Or blood?
“There’s one number saved on the phone. Ring it when you have the old bastard in front of you. You know how to make a videocall, right? Nicky said you’re kinda old-school.”
“I’ll figure it out.”
His chunky body undulates as he laughs.
“You better fucking do.”
I signal Spacey Tracey for another Kronenbourg. I can’t tell whether her oversized earrings are supposed to be baubles or fucking ballbags. I return to my table and start to read the press cutting that was attached to the phone. The arse-sweat has blurred the newsprint in places, but I get the gist.
The headline says: THE NAUGHTY LIST: Chrimbo crooks crime-spree catalogued and the article details the exploits of four middle-aged career criminals who ripped off a Securicor van in December 1991 – dressed in fucking Santa suits.
The wheelman ploughed into the security van in a Transit, while the triggerman shot out the tyres with a bolt-action rifle. The third man snapped the aerials to render the guards’ radios useless and the fourth man cut into the side of the van with a disc cutter.
Before they fled the scene, one of the Santas dragged the driver out of the dented cab and made him kneel in the gutter before bludgeoning him with a lump hammer that had been attached to his belt with a length of twine. The four men escaped with £123,000 in low-denomination banknotes and were never seen again.
I’m not the sharpest Stanley knife in the fucking toolbox, but it’s immediately apparent that the only man who didn’t end up in a watery grave was ‘Slack’ Jack Frost – a small town sadist with a lazy eye and a rubbery, partially paralysed face.
Time to go to work.
Rossiters department store, Palace Avenue.
Hand out enough free pints at the Cock ‘n’ Whistle and the local juiceheads would probably sell out their brothers, mothers and lovers. An old lag like Slack Jack is definitely fair game for the loose-lipped local lushes.
When I find him, he’s in the downstairs grotto at Rossiters – bawling kid on his lap, an Oxygen cylinder next to the velvet pouffe he is awkwardly perched on. I slip the midget in the elf costume a fiver and join the queue. His name is Small Paul and he used to work on Paignton Pier, manning the Helter Skelter – despite not meeting the minimum height requirement.
Slack Jack yanks down the fake beard and takes a greedy hit on his Oxygen, before gazing at me through rheumy eyes.
“Little old for the grotto aren’t you, son?”
I fumble with the smartphone. I haven’t got a fucking clue what I’m doing.
“You scumbag, you maggot/You cheap lousy faggot…”
It sounds like a cellblock singalong.
“Rey? Press the videocall button, you dickhead.”
I press the icon on the screen, and Nicky Saint appears. He is a swarthier, sweatier version of his dead Dad. His eyes are an unsettling shade of dye-pack blue, and like his father, he also appears to have his National Insurance number tattooed across his neck.
“You did well, pal. Grit-Bin is on his way with the shooter. Now, put that dirty bastard Frost on the blower.”
Before I can hold the phone up – and let Nicky trade pleasantries with the decrepit specimen who dismembered his father nearly 30 years ago – Slack Jack lashes out at me with a fucking lump hammer.
“I’ve put harder men in the ground than you, son.”
“And the fucking harbour…”
All around us, women and children are screaming – trampling the cheap winter wonderland décor in their haste to get away from Santa – ratty beard dangling from his scrawny chicken neck.
“And the fucking harbour. £123,000 split four ways equals sweet fuck all. Even in the fucking ‘90s.”
He swings the hammer at me again and makes contact this time – sending a spasm of pain across my right shoulder-blade and down my arm. Motherfucker.
He grins nastily through his lopsided mouth and the next blow batters my ribcage. I drop to the floor like a sack of unwanted presents. Slack Jack wheezes as he raises the hammer above my head.
Before he can finish me off, I grab his oxygen tank with my left hand and slam the metal into his legs – shattering his elderly shinbones.
“Fuck you, old man.”
I lift the tank and prepare to stove his ruined face in.
Then I feel Grit-Bin’s chubby fingers on the back of my neck. In his other hand he is holding the ruptured smartphone.
He holds it over Slack Jack’s screaming, contorted face for Nicky’s inspection – and then removes the sawn-off shotgun from the waistband of his jogging bottoms.
He presses the ragged snout against the old man’s nostrils.
Tears of rage well up in Slack Jack’s eyes. He starts to say something, when Nicky’s sneering voice cuts him off.
“Merry Christmas, motherfucker.”
Bio: Tom Leins is the author of the Paignton Noir mysteries: SKULL MEAT, SNUFF RACKET, SPINE FARM, SLUG BAIT and BONEYARD DOGS.
Other books include the short story collections MEAT BUBBLES & OTHER STORIES and REPETITION KILLS YOU and the novella DIRTY BULLION – a collaboration with Benedict J. Jones, author of the Charlie Bars series.
Looking ahead, THE GOOD BOOK: FAIRY TALES FOR HARD MEN – a collection of wrestling noir – will be published by All Due Respect in January 2020.