Can of Worms by Paul Matts

The best thing about moving into my new house is that I get to overhaul the garden. This hasn’t been the case for any of the previous houses I’ve rented. Usually you only maintain it. But here, I get to do what I want. It is overgrown and in desperate need of controlling, with leggy shrubs dotted across the lawn and the borders. An uneven slabbed patio area provides a concrete eyesore reminiscent of a warzone. Spilt and split bags of building sand, smashed glass, broken bricks and chunks of cement make it look like an early cold war snap of Berlin.

Me and my new girlfriend Tess moved in a week ago on a monthly rental so we could spend Christmas in our new home. We have now done so and we’re now at that dead bit between the big day itself and New Year’s Eve. The 28th of December, to be specific. ‘Home’, incidentally, is in an estate which residents dub ‘the Manor’. Tess grew up here. She moved away a couple of years ago after her Dad died but soon wanted to return. Her calling, she told me. Most of the buildings share a frontage looking like our back-age. Tatty, scruffy and currently decorated with green, red, white and yellow blobs of light.

I am keen to get stuck into the garden. So keen, I even may have to leave Tess in bed alone. Which is a tough thing to do. Saturday morning sex works, see. However, today, she is dead to the world following her first shift back at the pub, so I give her naked back a slow stroke with my fingers. Morning ritual. She likes it and is aware I do it, she swears. She has a firm body, not an ounce of fat anywhere. Must be her obsessive gym programme. Eventually, and reluctantly, I haul myself out of bed, trying to attract her attention on the way. No use. She remains static. I give her a final glance as I reach the bedroom door. She rolls over, landing face down smothered by our pure white duvet, with just her black hair peeking out of the top. Game most definitely over. This morning it didn’t even get under way.

No matter. There’s work to be done outside. I could do with working off some Christmas stodge. I’ll need my energy to dig out several shrubs none of which will feature in my grand garden design. Tess would have sapped some of exuberance had she been up for it.

I swallow a of cup of tea and some leftover, limp sausage rolls and head outside. Armed with a spade.

The objective this morning is to remove a pyracanth bush. All sharp spikes and tiny green leaves. The spikes are vicious, and as I don’t want to risk brutal maiming every time I step out into my patch of Eden, it must come out. I removed the branches last Sunday, so just the task of digging the main trunk and root remain.

My progress though, grinds to a halt after little more than ten minutes. There, in the clay soil, at about a depth of eighteen inches, is a round tin. It looks like a baked bean can, with the label removed. It appears to have cellophane stretched around it. Intriguing.

Worms wriggle all around the can, clearly revelling in the clay soil. And possibly irritated at being disturbed. I remove the can, wiping away the thick clumps of clay from its still shiny exterior. I brush away three or four worms simultaneously. There is something inside.

Obviously I tear away the cellophane and investigate. It’s a note.

Accompanied by a thick roll of fifty-pound notes. Must be about five Grand’s worth.

Well what do we have here?’ The note should shed some light. I brush away more soil.

‘To John Wand,

I should be long gone by the time you find this. If you ever do. If you’re reading this, then you have found my payment. Do with it what you wish. Just leave me alone.

Jimmy.’

Jimmy was the previous occupant of our new home. He left in a hurry; we’re still visited by debt collectors looking for him.

And John Wand? I know him, unfortunately. But he’s not a friend. A nutter. A recluse. I bumped into him in the local bookies on Boxing Day. The day after Christmas Day. He didn’t seem too thrilled when I told him we’d moved into Jimmy’s old place …

‘I’m your new neighbour … I’ve moved into Jimmy’s old place.’

John Wand looked right at me and remained stone cold still. He narrowed his already slit blue eyes. They are almost grey-blue, to match his grey head of straight, greasy hair. Loosely parted at the side. His bear-like shape, complete with very-round shoulders, gives his body a convex quality. His bulk is a bit like Baloo’s from The Jungle Book, from the shoulders down, anyway. He usually has a sky-blue Umbro sweatshirt on and was a Manchester City fan in his younger days; but has rejected them since they became rich and successful. A football fan who prefers to moan about the misfortune and daylight robbery of games twenty years ago rather than bask in City’s present-day success.

A silence ensued for a couple of seconds.

‘You ok John?’

‘Do you like it?’ John Wand asked, sternly.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Jimmy’s old place?’

‘Err. Yes. Nice big garden.’

A pause.

‘You like the garden?’ John Wand hissed, looking deadly serious.

Another silence. The chill in the air was biting. The cold days often attack in December.

‘Err. Yes. It’s nice to have something I can get my teeth into. The landlord said I can do what I want with it.’

‘What’s that then?’

‘I dunno. Maybe one of those modern, sharp, symmetrical designs you see at the Chelsea Garden Show?’

‘Does that mean you’ll be digging stuff up?’ His countenance took a step towards that of a serial killer.

‘Maybe. Why?’

And with that John Wand split. He seemed riled.

⃰⃰

Weird. Really weird. Now I have this note, which is addressed to John Wand. It’s from Jimmy. I count the fifty-pound notes, and there are a hundred and twenty of them. Seven thousand quid, then.

I won’t tell Tess about it, just yet. We’ve only been together for a couple of months. So, we’re still very much in the novelty stage of our relationship. She’s tough, strong and not to be messed with. She wears the trousers in our relationship. It might seem weird us moving in together so quickly, but it suits our circumstances. She wanted to move back to the Manor, and I was stuck in a property I shared with four others which was shit, let me tell you. Cold and damp, rubbish broadband and no peace due to my noisy housemates. I was glad to leave.

I put the can on one side and continue to dig. The air is still but the garden is bleak on this foggy morning. I can see only about twenty yards in front of me. Ten minutes later, the pyracanth, is out, root and all. I cannot stop thinking about the can of worms, fifty-pound notes and the letter, however. I stop and pick it up once more.

What do I do? I will have to confront John Wand, won’t I?

Or will I? Seven thousand quid would come in handy. It’d get me some nice pavers, a nice Al-fresco dining set and some trendy Miscanthus and other grasses, for a start. And a fire-pit. Tess’d be thrilled. It’d get me brownie points.

‘What’s THAT?’ a cool, gravelly voice demands from behind me. The voice is laced with aggression, cynicism and it startles me. So much so that I drop the can, sending the remaining worms and the one hundred and twenty fifty-pound notes across the damp, long, unkempt and clumpy grass, which has gone to seed in several places.

John Wand watches as the notes flicker to the ground. It’s as if he knew I would be up to something. He must have been watching me.

‘What’s that?’ he repeats, menacingly. ‘What’s that can you were holding?’

‘What’s it to you, John?’

‘What’s that?’ he repeats.

I ignore his question.

‘What’s THAT, IVAN?’ John Wand’s anger is on the rise.

I begin to sweat and tingle. I didn’t realise he knew my name. It is a freezing, foggy morning. John is wearing a Manchester City t-shirt (sky blue) with a picture of Denis Tueart’s spectacular overhead kick winner from the 1976 League Cup Final on its front. A golden 1970s soccer moment. He must be hard as hell to come outside wearing just this and three-quarter length trackie bottoms on a day like this.

‘Nothing,’ I eventually reply, nonchalantly.

‘Doesn’t look like nothing. Show me.’

I look at the can. And visualise my firepit, expensive slabs and trendy grasses. I sense John Wand is closing in on me. I take a step back.

‘I’m getting impatient. I’ll count to three,’ Wand threatens.

‘And do what?’

‘I don’t want to hurt you, Ivan,’ he hisses. John Wand often does so as he speaks.

‘Why would you do that?’

‘If people don’t do as I say that’s what tends to happen.’

I eyeball him. Or rather he does me, and as I can’t think of any other reaction, I look back at him in the eye. So that’s eyeballing him, right?

I read out the contents of the note. John Wand listens intently.

‘Where did you find that?’ he demands as I finish the recital and return to the sharp glare of his narrow blue-grey eyes.

I point to the hole around where the pyracanth stood.

‘Just there, in the ground.’

‘So that’s where he put it?’

‘Who?’

‘Jimmy.’

I scratch my head. ‘What’s this about?’

‘On this very spot, a couple of years back, he smacked someone over the head with a spade. An argument over a girl.’

‘Why is he thanking you?’

‘I helped him dispose of the body.’

‘Jimmy killed him?’

‘Yep.’

‘There’s only seven Grand at the most in the can.’

‘Counted it, have you?’

‘I’ve counted it, yes. It doesn’t seem much to me. Not for getting rid of a body, anyway. What business was it of your’s?’ I might be pushing my luck asking this.

John Wand chuckles. He lights a roll-up and exhales a tidy lung full.

‘It’s the final instalment, you prick. There’s been several of them. They add up.’ He seems to be letting my enquiry slide.

‘Oh. How come this instalment was buried here?’

‘I like to have a bit of fun. Buried treasure, X marks the spot, all of that. He left in a hurry and told me it was in his garden. Underneath a prickly bush. I was away in Spain until Boxing Day, see.’ He lets a sly grin escape from his mouth, showing a gap in the middle of his incisors. Like Joe Jordan in his heyday. Equally as frightening as the Scottish bulldozing centre forward, too. He then adds, ‘I’d just got back when I saw you at the bookies.’

‘A good living, then?’ I feel uneasy asking John Wand this. It’s as if I’m enquiring about its suitability as a job for myself. I’m not, incidentally.

‘Beats working. I turn up and screw people when they’re desperate. It adds up nicely, since you ask,’ he sneers.

Wand slowly releases another sly, wicked and menacing grin across his sun-tanned face. He sharpens his glare once more, so far into my eyeballs it connects straight to my increasingly heightened sense of fear.

‘Thing is, you’re now involved, Ivan.’

‘Eh?’

‘Involved. You know about what I do. So, I now I need to own you. And screw you as a result.’

‘Own me? Screw me?’

‘Yes. Own you. And screw you. You will have to do what I say. Otherwise you’ll end up in the same place as Jimmy’s love rival. In the ground. There’s room for more. I can’t have you threatening my activities. Or my livelihood. Might do the same to that pretty girl of your’s while I’m at it.’

‘Touch her and I’ll kill you.’

John Wand looks serious for a second. And then lets out an evil laugh that is so loud it scares me. It seems to echo around the patio area. It’ll probably wake Tess, too.

‘A-ha. You and whose army? You don’t know what you’re dealing with sonny. My disposals stretch into double figures now.’

‘Disposals?’

‘Dead body disposal. Lucrative. Disposal including killing someone? Even more lucrative. It’s got me loaded. Rich. I could kill you, your pretty girl Tess, her family and no-one would ever find any of you.’

I swallow hard. ‘You’re not serious?’

‘Depends on whether you’re a good boy from now on, doesn’t it?’

‘You can’t go around bullying people like this.’

Not the right time to tell John Wand what to do. If there ever is a right time. John Wand grabs me by the throat. He digs his fingertips into my upper neck and throat. I struggle for breath.

‘I’ll ignore that last remark. I’ll write it off to lack of experience.’ He then hisses wickedly. ‘But you only get one chance with a man like me. Do as I tell you.’

I can only make a clicking, clucking sound. I cannot configure my mouth appropriately to say any sort of word. I am in pain, make no mistake. I begin to feel faint.

John Wand knows this. He’s got me. I have only a few more seconds before I pass out. Or die, maybe?

‘SO, from now on, if you do EXACTLY as I tell you, we’ll get on fine. Starting with giving me my final instalment from Jimmy.’

‘O- k-k-k-k-aayyy,’ I somehow respond.

John Wand digs his fingertips in a touch further and tightens his grip on my throat.

‘I’ll watch while you get all that money from the floor.’

‘O-k-k-k-ay.’ He hasn’t let go of my throat, though. There’s more.

‘While I’m at it, I’ll commission a loyalty payment from you. Two thousand pounds should be enough.’

‘W-w-w-ha-?’ It’s not going to be possible to stay upright much longer.

‘Two Grand, by New Year’s Day. Otherwise you and your girl, and her little sister….’

‘LOOK UP, DICK-SPLASH!’

John Wand is interrupted.

And John Wand’s grip is released. An object drops from above and smashes right on top of his head. A heavy, heavy object. A huge, cast iron, barbell in fact. Blood explodes from his head. It shoots in all directions. I hop from my left leg to my right to avoid him as his bulk slumps down to the ground. His stomach wobbles as it settles into position. A pool of deep red liquid is quickly forming next to the right of his head. The puddle slowly expands. More blood splats over some of the slabs. It is Jackson Pollock-esq in its vivid, violent beauty. John Wand is on his back, his vacant eyes facing directly upwards. The top of his head is dented and split. His mouth is open, his tongue lolling to one side. God it’s a big tongue, like Gene Simmons’s. His face is a mess. His forehead split. Blood is running freely into its newly formed furrows and craters.

I lean in closer. I can see his skull through the skin of his forehead. A good two inches of it is visible, an inch or so above grey eyebrows, which meet in the middle so thickly that they look like a moustache that has grown in the wrong place. Obviously they are now drenched in blood.

The huge, heavy barbell has rolled to a stop on the patio, halting as it hits the low wall which separates the slabs from the lawn. Blood has been smeared along the ground as it completed its journey.

A journey that began from the upstairs back window, apparently. For there is Tess, leaning out, a cold look in her eyes. In total contrast to the look of complete horror slapped over my face, I’m sure. It was her voice that shouted, and her who dropped the barbell. No mean feat, but possible for a gym obsessive like Tess. It has been dropped with deadly accuracy.

‘I heard him laugh. I heard what he was going to do to us. No way is he going to hurt me. Again.’

‘S-s-so you did that?’ I am shaking, my heart beating so hard it surely is going to break out of my body.

Tess shuts the window abruptly. Ten seconds later she appears out of the back door, fixing her black, shiny kimono. Sexy as hell. Deadly as hell.

‘We need to get rid of the body, quickly,’ she says before continuing. ‘I mean, he is dead, right?’

I give no reply, and just stare at the blood splattered image of Dennis Tueart’s acrobatics against Newcastle United on John Wand’s chest. I can’t look at Wand’s disfigured face and head any longer.

‘He is dead RIGHT?’

‘Err, err sorry. Yeah. Defo. I’d say. No breath. Dead.’ I can’t be sure he’s clinically dead. I haven’t checked his pulse. I bend down and stretch out my right arm.

I put two fingers across his jugular. No pulse.

I am shaking, as if I’ve disappeared off into a parallel universe.

Tess on the other hand, is alive and full of focused urgency. She seems cold about what just happened. No hint of panic. Business-like.

‘Seems dead,’ I clarify.

‘We must be quick. I have some blankets and some space in my car boot.’

Hang on. It’s as if she knew this was going to happen. She almost seems prepared.

Tess returns with an armful of charcoal-coloured blankets. She lays them out over the uneven patio. We then roll John Wand’s disformed Baloo-like bulk into the blankets, his dented, crushed skull, sun-tanned face and body disappear into the dark grey fabric like a chunk of lightly cooked kebab meat being rolled into a whole-grain fajita.

Tess barks out an order. ‘Help me put him in the boot of my car. You do something about the slabs and the blood. Pronto.’

I nod, having very much taken the subversive role. A bit like my place under Tess when we fuck. Dutifully, I help Tess lift John Wand’s comatose body. She seems to virtually do it herself. My god he’s heavy. His bear like shape is difficult to shift. I can feel his limbs through the blankets. He feels warm. Sixty seconds back he was threatening me. We hump him into the boot of Tess’s Fiesta. And quickly slam the door shut, folding his arms and legs and, yuk, his neck as we do so. Like forcing a mattress into the boot.

‘What you gonna do now?’

‘Get rid of him. I know how. I have someone to help me.’

What? Again, it’s as if she knew this was going to happen.

‘Eh? How? Who?’

‘No time now. Tell you later. Slabs.’

I give her a terrified, hesitant look. But say nothing.

‘SLABS!’

‘Okay, okay. Right’. We both have jobs that need doing.

I hear her Fiesta speed away. John Wand is a passenger. I cannot be sure we weren’t spotted. Then again, round this manor, all sorts happen. It sounds like John Wand, from what he was telling me, was at the heart of some of it. A reclusive nutter and a bully.

I assess the area. My heart is pounding. My emotions are now beginning to change. I’ve never felt so alive. Really focused. Like Tess. She’d be proud.

I count six slabs splattered with blood. And another two with the pool of blood split between them. A rack of ten leftover slabs lean against the back of the house. I replace the bloodied slabs. There is no cement, so they come up easy. I scoop up all the blood between the cracks.

An hour later, the job is done. I take the bloodied slabs to the local tip in my Vauxhall Astra. Which is blood red in colour, ironically. I manage to sneak them into the hardcore skip without detection, despite the fact I am one of many folks at the tip on this foggy morning. The conditions are beneficial, I guess, for my operation; the lack of visibility would make it difficult for the workers to read my number plate, or indeed see my face. So, identifying me in the foggy crowd would not be easy. I should get away with it.

Do they even check slabs for blood? I doubt it.

I return home and wait for Tess. I sit on a tall stool in our kitchen. An hour passes. No sign of her.

A further hour passes with no sign of her. Then, I hear the click of the door unlocking.

‘Sorry I’ve been a while. I’ve been to the gym.’

‘THE GYM!? After what just happened?’

‘Yes. The gym. Is that ok with you?’

‘Not right now. No. What did you do with John Wand?’

‘I arranged his disposal. Like he did with other people.’

‘You disposed of his body?’

‘No. I got someone else to do it.’

‘Who?’

‘Never mind.’

I look at Tess, probably incredulously. I raise my eyebrows, puff my cheeks out and throw my arms out wide. She drops her gym bag to the floor. How she remembered to even take her gym bag after what she just did astonishes me.

Tess takes the hint and sits on the stool opposite.

‘This will shock you,’ she begins.

‘Go on.’

‘John Wand was a bully. And a rapist. He violated me and my sister Kat when we were younger. Me first, Kat second. He also threatened my Dad that he would do it again if he told the police. He even got money out Dad. Wand said he’d tell everyone across the Manor what he’d done to me and Kat unless Dad paid up when he demanded. Wand had done similar things with other families, apparently.’

I nod and feel queasy. I look her right in the eye. Her eyes are welling up. Tears trickle down her cheek.

‘What an evil piece of shit,’ is all I can say.

The look on Tess’s face tells me everything. No further words needed.

‘I thought your Dad died?’

‘He did. Two months after all of this. He topped himself. He couldn’t deal with Wand’s manipulation and felt hopeless. He said he felt he couldn’t do anything to protect us without risking our safety. And he couldn’t afford to give Wand money every time he clicked his finger. He couldn’t stand it, and Wand’s sneering as they passed around the Manor made it worse. So, he gassed himself in our garage.’ Tess relays this information calmly, her words punctuated by quiet tears.

‘I had no idea that was how he died.’

‘It’s not something you burden others with, is it? But it has made me who I am today. I’m afraid of nothing. Me and Kat raised ourselves. I was just eighteen when he killed himself. Mum had left home by then.’ She sniffs, wipes a tear and runs her hand through her floppy, shiny black hair.

‘So, were you always going to get revenge on John Wand?’

‘I didn’t expect it to happen so quick. Thing is, I’ve been ready. I recognised his laugh in the garden when he was talking to you. I’ve had nightmares about it. The same laugh I remember from when he cornered me and Kat. The same laugh I remember when me, Kat and Dad were walking around the Manor and he saw us. I hate that laugh.’

‘I just snapped,’ she offers, as if explaining herself.

Tess pauses, gets off her stool and gets herself a can of Red Bull from the fridge. She returns to her stool.

‘I knew when I came back to the Manor with you our paths would cross. Wand knows where I live. Jimmy’s old place. I knew he’d show up. I was ready to take my chance if it came. I wanted revenge. Not for what he did to me. For what he did to my Dad and my sister. So, when I heard that laugh, I got the twenty-kilo cast iron barbell, pushed the window open wide and … bullseye. I couldn’t have been more accurate. It has sharp, hard edges.’

I just sit. Taking this in. To think I was supposed to be getting stuck into the garden at that very moment.

‘Where is he?’

‘John Wand’s now with someone higher up the chain. A mean fucker called ‘Mustard’. Mustard told me he would help me get revenge on John Wand. Mustard disposes of people. He’ll finish Wand off first if he isn’t quite dead. Wand’s tied up in the back of Mustard’s van at the minute. He’s been gagged and cut open a bit more. Mustard’s a member of ‘The Outlaws’. Local council estate mafia, going back decades, right back to the fifties. They’ve got rid of so many folks you’d never believe it. And Mustard isn’t even charging me.’

‘Are we safe then?’

‘A lot safer than we were last night. Wand wanted to be like The Outlaws. But, The Outlaws don’t like bullies like him. They’ve got rid of quite a few of them over time. They’re a different level, see. Bigger operations. Bigger money. And they look out for their friends, acquaintances and administer justice accordingly. My Dad was friendly with some of The Outlaws. So was Mum before she left. And so am I, and so is Kat, and so now are you, Ivan.’

I think I am okay with this. Better to have Mustard and The Outlaws as friends than enemies. I feel slightly emotional. Honoured, even. However, I have a question.

‘How come The Outlaws didn’t do anything when it all happened?’

Tess closes her eyes and lets out a deep breath. She wipes her eyes.

‘I went to them after Dad’s funeral. Mustard told me to wait, and not do anything hasty. It would attract too much attention. It would be too obvious, he said. They were going to wipe Wand out in the new year anyhow, but when I heard his laugh and then him blackmailing you, I snapped. I knew Mustard would help me out immediately, and he did. Took John Wand off my hands. The Outlaws even steam-cleaned my car when I was in the gym and returned it to me.’

‘So, there’s no trace of Wand anywhere, especially in your car?’

‘Nope. Clean as a whistle.’ Tess smiles. Sweetly. And then continues. ‘And they’ll never find Wand. The police, Wand’s friends, family, no-one will. The entire Manor will be happy. He was despised.’

I smile nervously. ‘He has friends and family, then?’

‘No-one will miss him. Promise. Even if they did, they wouldn’t mess with The Outlaws. No-one does.’

‘Even the cops?’

‘Even the cops.’

Again, I think I am okay with this.

‘So, this is life in the Manor eh?’

‘Yep. You need to know who to trust, keep the right friends and hold the right grudges. Look after family, friends and call in favours. And ..’ Tess breaks off for a second and holds my hand, running her index finger along my palm. It tickles.

‘We’re seven Grand richer, apparently …?’

‘Seems so. Happy New Year …?’ I offer, tentatively.

‘Yes. Indeed. Happy New Year,’ she confirms, raising her can of Red Bull.

To the can of worms, I think to myself.

Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His first novella, ‘Donny Jackal’, a kitchen sink coming of age tale set in English punk rock suburbia in 1978, is out now both in paperback and as an E-book. His debut novel ‘Toy Guitars’ is due to be published shortly, and he is the author of the short stories ‘Can of Worms’, ‘Spade, Rose and Blood’, ‘Revenge can be Sweet’, ‘The Bench’ and ‘One More Season’. He also writes flash fiction, including ‘Hollow Love’, ‘Wedding Shot over the Wire’, and ‘Family Guy?’ His work has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, We Are Cult, Razur Cuts, Something Else and Unlawful Acts.

He previously promoted live shows as 101 Productions and owned The Attik night club from 2001-2007. He was also a songwriter and guitarist in The Incurables.

Paul also writes articles on under-appreciated individuals in the punk and new wave movement and is a regular reviewer in We Are Cult and Something Else. See www.paulmatts.com for more details, and to subscribe to updates.

Paul Matts

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