TWENTY-THREE

Luckily for me, it was a glancing blow or that would have been the end of me. I must have reacted just in time, raising my left arm instinctively to parry, because the heavy cosh he was carrying skidded off my forehead and he dropped it from his gloved hand. The impact was still hard enough to draw blood, rattle my brains and give me a sick feeling deep in my stomach.

My attacker was a weasel-faced, gaunt guy about my height. He didn’t look like conventional muscle and if he had been I’d have been dead by now, so I figured he was there just to turn my place over. He was looking for something.

That’s all I had time to think about. Weasel-face grabbed me round my neck and slammed me back through the bedroom door. Christ he was strong for such a lean guy, with a grip like a vice. He must have been a rock-climbing cat burglar. His fingers were digging into me, closing round my throat until I could barely breathe. As he forced me backwards, I grabbed his arm and tried to dislodge it but I couldn’t shake it loose. It didn’t help that he was pummelling my head with his free fist as he propelled me back down the hall, knocking me half-senseless in the process.

I fought back of course, hitting him a couple of times in the body and the side of the head but I couldn’t get him off me and I was starting to feel the heat in my face as he was cutting off my airway. He was staring at me like he was mightily pissed-off I’d disturbed him. He must have known he had to finish me or he’d be a dead man.

He was still pushing me backwards and we ended up in the living room struggling. He knocked me right back to the far wall and I still couldn’t prise him away. I was kicking out at his shins, trying to knee him in the bollocks and punching him but nothing I did seemed capable of stopping him. Eventually, he virtually lifted me off my feet and I felt the wall slam hard into my back, knocking the wind out of me. His fingers squeezed tighter round my throat. I knew I was in serious shit now. He was going to kill me if I didn’t do something, and quick.

I snaked my free arm out across the wall and stretched as far as I could, desperate to reach the heavy wooden plaque with its ornately-carved elephants that we’d brought back from Thailand. I’d only nailed it up there a few days ago so I knew it had enough weight. I could give him a smack round the head that would fell anyone and then I could kill the fucker with it. I’d almost blacked out but I was an inch away from it, and he suddenly realised what I was trying to do and gripped me even tighter round the throat. I was choking so bad I couldn’t extend my arm any further. It was no use, I couldn’t reach it. I strained for it once more and felt the back of my fingertips graze it but again he lifted me off my feet then bumped me away from it, slamming my head against the side of the shelf nearby for good measure. I managed to get a punch into the side of his head and it was a good one. He listed slightly, off balance for a moment but kept his grip round my throat and I knew I would black out soon. In desperation, I flailed my free arm out to the opposite side and my hand connected with the only other item in the flat that I could now reach.

As my hand touched it, I pushed my other palm up under his chin and gouged my thumb into the flesh just above his Adam’s apple. He shrieked in pain and loosened his grip round my throat for just a second. I pushed his arm away and butted him hard in the nose with my head, drawing blood and forcing him back just a little. He blinked as he tried to clear his head and I knew this was my only chance. I grabbed the heavy object from the shelf and, as he came rushing back at me, I twisted my body. His arm was lower than it should have been and I brought my weapon smartly across in a nice, hard, fluid arc, until it crashed into the side of his face with a sickening smash. Weasel-face screamed like I had just put twenty thousand volts through him and the urn I was holding smashed on impact into dozens of sharp pieces, sending a spray of blood into the air.

Everything seemed to move in slow motion then, including the blood that gushed all over the bastard’s face and slid down the side of his head, but that too was instantly obscured by the huge cloud of ash that followed it. The late Angela Cooper seemed to hang in the air for a second before covering him. The ashes were all over his face like a swarm of insects and he went down screaming, frantically wiping his eyes. He must have been wondering what the hell I had hit him with.

That was all the energy I had left. I dropped to the floor like someone just took my batteries out and ended up propped up against the wall like a puppet with its strings cut. As the room started to spin and turn slowly black, I was vaguely aware of Weasel-face scrambling to his feet and I thought oh fuck, he is going to finish me now, he’ll have all of the time in the world to do it as well and I’ve nowt left to give, but instead he got up unsteadily, clutching his face, screaming like he was on fire and leaking blood big style. There was a thin shard of china sticking out of the side of his face and all I could think was what a shame I didn’t get the chance to wedge that into his neck. He gave one last shriek and ran from my flat.

The last thing I remembered, before I passed out, was trying to reach my mobile phone from my pocket and being dimly aware that Laura’s mother had slowly fallen to the ground around me in a great big slate-grey plume of ash; thousands of her component particles now littered my carpet. It was funny; I’d have said she’d be the last person in the world to save my life.

I lost track of time or what I was supposed to be doing. Then, I didn’t think about anything any more. There was just silence and a great big, comforting cloak of blackness.

When I came round, Finney was laughing at me. ‘Don’t worry Brains,’ he said, ‘you’ve not lost your looks,’ his great, ugly mug was peering down at me and then Sarah, all concern, was at my side, a damp tea towel in her hand, which she proceeded to dab with great tenderness to my bruised and battered face. The cool water helped me to get my senses and, though it was an effort to talk, I asked them.

‘How’d you find me?’

‘You called me,’ said Sarah. I had no recollection of this at all.

‘Did I?’ and I wondered why I had dialled her and not Laura or some more useful and muscular presence for the aftermath of a fight, like Finney. I put it down to delirium and she continued to look at me with the concern of a mother for a small, injured child.

‘You couldn’t really speak, just sort of gurgled, so I asked if you were at your flat and you said yes, then it all went quiet. I was in the car with Finney anyway. He was dropping me off at Joanne’s, so we shot round here straight away.’

‘You’re just lucky the match was over,’ said Finney, ‘else you’d have waited ninety minutes for the cavalry.’

‘You break the door in?’ I asked.

‘It was open,’ he said, ‘whoever did this left in a hurry and, judging by your carpet, he was bleeding like a stuck pig. What happened?’

So I told them. There didn’t seem any reason not to tell the truth, all of it. Finney listened to my slightly delirious description of the fight then he looked at the mess on the living room floor. ‘Well,’ he said approvingly, ‘looks like your mum in law come in handy.’

And then I remembered what I hit Weasel-face with. I got a slow and horrible realisation that I had used the irreplaceable ashes of my girlfriend’s dead mother as a weapon and, even now, they were all over my carpet, mixed in with bits of broken china and a burglar’s blood and most likely trodden right into it all by Finney’s size twelves.

‘Oh fuck,’ I said and Finney laughed an evil laugh.

‘I’d say your problems are just starting.’

Sarah was a diamond, she really was. She insisted Finney helped me to my feet and got me sitting up on the couch. She made me a cup of tea, which I sipped while I slowly came back down to planet earth. Finney rang in a brief, coded description of what had happened to me to Bobby who was apparently very relieved to hear that I was more or less okay. In a strange way, I realised that me being targeted like this might just end any lingering suspicion he might have had about me.

Only when she was sure I was not suffering from major, life-threatening concussion did Sarah transfer her attention to the mess that littered the floor of my flat and began to tidy it up for me. ‘I’m sure we can sort all this out before Laura gets back,’ she said doubtfully. I appreciated her lying to me like that, especially as I felt like shit. I had bruises everywhere. Even in my crap state I knew there was no chance of making this scene look any better than it did but Sarah tried, bless her.

I was beginning to think I must have done something really bad in a past life when at that point, with impeccable timing, Laura walked through the front door, keys in hand. She spotted Finney standing there then looked at me slumped on the couch and asked, ‘what’s the matter?’ before I could answer she finally noticed Sarah kneeling on my carpet, a brush and a dustpan in hand, into which she had managed to sweep roughly a third of Laura’s mother.

The noise Laura made was almost indescribable.

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