As the prison door slammed behind him he inhaled deeply. He peered up at the steely grey sky and turned up his collar against the drizzle. He didn’t feel any elation, just a dull empty flatness like a slowly deflating balloon. His scuffed shoes pinched his toes and his shiny suit was too thin for the December morning. He looked at his watch – she was late.
Suddenly, a shiny black car screeched to a halt beside him. The door slid open.
‘Hop in Jack,’ invited an unfamiliar voice.
Jack peered into the car, his brow furrowed. ‘Where’s Jen? Who are you?’ he asked.
‘Couldn’t make it. They sent me instead,’ grinned the young man, his teeth a perfect pearly array, the smile not managing to reach his cold grey eyes.
‘Are you going to stand there all day?’ he asked. ‘It’s bloody cold outside.’
‘Do I know you?’ said Jack, clutching his small leather case, which contained all his belongings.
‘Sort of,’ shrugged the young man.
The sky darkened and the rain suddenly pelted down, bouncing off the pavements and soaking through the thin soles of his shoes. Jack jumped into the car and slammed the door. At least he’d be out of the rain, he thought.
The driver slammed his expensive leather brogue on to the accelerator and the car lurched away from the kerb with a screech of rubber.
‘Hey, what’s the hurry?’ demanded Jack.
‘Nowt, just enjoy driving fast. Gives me a buzz,’ said the young man.
‘Mind if I smoke?’ asked Jack.
‘No, go ahead,’ he said. He pressed a button on the dashboard and an oak embossed ashtray slid out.
Jack sank back in the comfort of the black upholstery and lit a cigarette. His first cigarette as a free man.
As the car screeched past the dilapidated terrace houses and gas works on the outskirts of London, he sighed. He opened the window to waft some of the smoke out of the vehicle. The young man set the windscreen wipers on high speed to cope with the torrent of rain.
‘What happened to the Green Bricks?’ he asked.
‘Knocked down a few years back,’ answered the driver. ‘They’re building a new posh development with wine bars and boutiques soon,’ he added.
Jack felt a dull ache in his chest. He reflected upon the lost years and fought back a tear. He was afraid of finding out how much things had changed.
‘You could just drop me off at Hammersmith station?’ suggested Jack. ‘I could make my own way to West Towers from there,’ he added in an attempt at being nonchalant, although he felt a prickle of fear at the back of his neck.
‘Sorry, governor, those tenements are out of bounds now. Gonna pull ‘em down because the place is over-run with druggies and gang wars,’ replied the young man, his eyes focused on the road.
‘Still, if you drop me off at the station, I can see about booking into a hotel or something,’ Jack said, thinking that the cash in his wallet wouldn’t go far.
The driver sighed, a flicker of impatience crossing his handsome features.
‘Sorry, Jack, orders is orders. I’ve been instructed to look after ya. Don’t want to make the boss angry,’ he said.
Jack felt his insides turn to water.
‘Who is your b-boss?’ he stammered, dreading the answer.
‘Johnny Heaton,’ said the young man flatly.
Jack kept his gaze fixed outside and tightly gripped his case. He needed some more pills. He would have to find a doctor as soon as possible. He glanced at the door. Should he get out and run? He didn’t have the energy, though. His long legs felt leaden.
Suddenly, the car swerved to avoid a motorcyclist.
‘I wish you’d slow down,’ said Jack.
The young man just laughed and patted Jack on the shoulder, a bit too heartily.
Eventually, the car slowed down when it hit a wall of traffic. Jack let out an audible sigh of relief. They crawled through the city of London, past St James Park and Covent Garden with its ubiquitous red buses and tourists. They drove past stately white houses with the huge shiny black doors. The rain had stopped and the pavements were glistening, illuminated by the streetlights. The shop windows were impressive – all designer items and muted lighting. Jack peered upwards to see the dome of St Paul’s cathedral before they drove along the Embankment.
The car eventually slid seamlessly into an underground garage, its doors rising automatically on approach.
They were suddenly plunged into darkness. Jack felt trapped.
Abruptly, the young man jumped out of the car, tossing his keys into the air.
‘C’mon, let’s get you sorted out with nosh,’ he said. The lights automatically flicked on illuminating the rest of the garage. There were two other cars parked up – a gleaming red Porsche and a vintage Aston Martin. Jack wondered who the rich owners were – surely not his companion’s, he thought.
They walked through a black door, which led up some stone steps. His companion keyed in a code to another door and they walked into an ornate lobby, decked with white lilies. Their strong fragrance made Jack feel nauseous. He hated lilies. They reminded him of funerals.
The security guard who had been aimlessly doing a crossword suddenly jumped to attention.
He stood up and tipped his hat. ‘Good evening, sir’, he said.
His companion nodded imperially and they entered a lift.
Jack loosened his shirt collar as he watched the numbers seamlessly ascend to floor 30.
The doors glided open to reveal a long corridor laid with a plush red carpet.
‘Voila!,’ said the young man, removing a card from his pocket and sliding it into the nearest door.
Jack quickly scanned the spacious lounge. Its floor to ceiling windows were devoid of curtains. The polished parquet flooring was punctuated with pristine white Persian rugs. The furniture was minimalist and monochrome, a depressing palette of black and white. It just matched his mood, thought Jack.
The young man pressed a button by the sofa and a huge plasma television emerged from behind it, from seemingly nowhere.
‘Catch up on telly, if you like,’ he said, patting the black leather sofa.
Jack had watched enough television inside. The thought made him feel weary. He shook his head.
‘Fancy a coffee?’ asked the young man.
Jack just shrugged.
‘Right you are then,’ he smiled, before disappearing into the kitchen.
Jack walked to the window and peered out. The view was breathtaking – he could see the sharp pinnacles of the Shard building and the Houses of Parliament. The Wheel was crawling round, its passengers like black specks. The apartment just oozed luxury. He could hear his host clattering about in the kitchen and the hissing sounds of steam.
Eventually the young man returned and handed him a tiny cup of steaming coffee.
‘Expresso,’ he announced. ‘The housekeeper has left some pasta for you too – just warming it up.’
Jack didn’t feel hungry. He grimaced as he threw back the bitter coffee and swallowed. He hated coffee. He put the cup down on to a low glass table.
‘Where’s the bathroom?’ he asked.
The young man nodded towards the door, ‘Second door on your left down the corridor,’ he said.
Mirrors clung to each wall and there was an enormous oval opaque bath in the centre of the room. He peered closely at his sunken features. His cheeks looked pinched and his face felt like sandpaper. He needed a shave. He examined his crows’ feet and the grey hairs that peppered his black hair. He glanced at the pots of men’s anti-ageing products lining the shelf. No real man would touch those, he thought.
Jack splashed his face with cold water when he worked out how to use the tap. He dabbed his face with a black fluffy hand towel.
When he emerged, the young man was shrugging back into his long grey overcoat. It made him look like a gangster, thought Jack wryly.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked.
‘Just got some business to attend to,’ he replied. ‘Won’t be long.’
‘Dinner’s ready for ya in the kitchen. There’s some new clobber in your wardrobe.’ He looked pointedly at Jack’s shabby trousers and gestured in the direction of his bedroom.
‘See ya,’ he said.
‘Erm, wait a minute,’ Jack called.
‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘Erm, I don’t even know your name,’ said Jack.
The young man paused. Then said, ‘It’s Ned,’ before striding out of the door.
Jack waited a few minutes and worried that he’d heard the front door click. Was he locked in, he wondered?
He hurried to the door and tried the handle. It opened. He sighed with relief. He felt he was being paranoid. He was out of prison now – he was a free man. He peered out into the long corridor. He wondered who else lived in the apartments or whether they were vacant. It was eerily silent.
He shut the door and the lounge landline suddenly gave a shrill ring, startling him. He tried to ignore it, but it wouldn’t stop.
He tentatively picked up the receiver. ‘Yes?’ he said. The caller hung up.
Jack wandered into the kitchen and perched at the breakfast bench on a chrome stool. He pushed the slimy carbonara pasta around the huge white plate that reminded him of a satellite dish. He longed to eat something wholesome – shepherd’s pie, followed by a pint, perhaps. He missed Jen’s cooking. He wondered where she was now. He suddenly pushed away his plate and lit a cigarette. He looked around tentatively. He half expected some sort of siren to be activated by the smoke, but it was quiet. Too quiet. He could hear the kitchen clock thudding or was it his heart? He inhaled deeply and then puffed out a ring of smoke. It helped him to think.
Where was he and who was Ned? He looked uncomfortably familiar. Why had he been brought here? He tapped the ash on to a saucer and skilfully lit another cigarette.
Jack paced about the apartment and ended up in his bedroom which dominated by a king-sized bed covered with a black silk counterpane. He slid open the wardrobe and gulped. He felt as if he was on the set of a James Bond film. The rails were packed with designer suits, all in muted colours – black, navy blue, grey and taupe. He examined one of the labels – Armani. He shrugged into the jacket and stared at his reflection in one of the huge mirrors that lined the wall. He decided that he looked quite snappy, showing traces of his former self.
He needed to think about getting his life back into order. He had a meeting with his probation officer next week and wanted to show him that he could cope. He didn’t suppose that anyone would employ him with his record but he’d go down to the job centre anyway and see. Perhaps there’d be some simple factory work for him, particularly with Christmas around the corner. He needed to sort out his life and get away from the past.
The telephone on the bedside table trilled. He stood motionless, a bead of sweat forming on his brow. He crept over to the telephone and snatched up the receiver. There was a click and the line went dead.
Jack suddenly saw a shadowy figure reflected in the mirror. His heart thudded as he turned around.
‘Woah, steady on mate. Didn’t mean to scare ya, just got back earlier than expected,’ said Ned.
He stood back and examined Jack. ‘You look good in that jacket. Perfect fit,’ he said coolly.
‘Where’s Jen?’ said Jack.
There was a long pause. Neither man spoke, just listened to the tick-tock of the bedroom clock. Jack thought he saw a flicker of fear cloud Ned’s features.
Ned didn’t answer but strode back into the living room and poured two glasses of whisky from the bar. He handed one to Jack. Ned gulped the fiery liquid down in one gulp.
‘Got something to tell you first,’ he said, gazing out across the muddy swirling waters of the Thames, ‘Dad’.
‘What did you call me?’ said Jack as the colour drained from his face. He gulped down the whisky, letting the fiery liquid burn his throat.
Ned avoided making eye contact. He thrust his hands into his pockets and examined his shoes.
‘I said that I am your son, your long-lost son,’ he said, with a trace of sarcasm.
Jack realised why he’d had such a feeling of déjà vu. They shared the same features, the same shade of eye colour. Even the gestures were similar, the way he held a glass …
‘Sorry for the shock. You last laid eyes on me when I was ...’
‘Two years old’, said Jack, his eyes watering.
Ned’s face clouded over. ‘Yes, when you walked out on me and Mam.’
There was a long uncomfortable pause.
Eventually Jack said, ‘Er, it wasn’t that simple, son.’
‘Go on,’ said Ned in a steely voice.
‘Things had happened. It was complicated. Anyway, she wrote to me inside. Think she still loves me.’
Ned glanced at his watch.
‘But why are you mixed up with all this son?’ asked Jack.
He opened his jacket pocket and removed his wallet, flashing a badge at him.
‘I’m not Dad, I’m a cop working under cover. Just going along with the gang, I’ve been trying to keep you safe. I thought I could protect you. But things are moving along. Johnny wants his money back. He wants to know where you hid it. We’re going to have to move quickly.’
‘But I don’t know where it is,’ said Jack.
‘Well, it’s too dangerous for you to stay. I’m taking you to Heathrow now.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Jack. ‘Where am I going?’
‘Australia. Your part of a protection programme. We need to be quick. Grab your case.’
The doorbell chimed.
‘It might be too late,’ said Jack, his heart hammered.
Ned felt for his gun.
‘Dad, get back in the kitchen.’
Jack did as he said as Ned slowly opened the door.
Jen was standing there with a suitcase. ‘Hi darling, is your Dad there? ‘
Jack stepped out to see his wife’s familiar chocolate brown eyes twinkling. She was wearing a belted black raincoat which accentuated her slender frame. Her long grey-black hair was swept up in a bun as always.
‘Hi love, welcome to the outside. I’ve heard it’s really hot in Australia at Christmas. Fancy some company? Think we might live there quite comfortably, if you know what I mean?’ she winked.
Jack stepped forward and swung her round in his arms, hugging her tightly and for the first time since he left prison he smiled.