Last week I rather rashly posted up the opening snippet from my work-in-progress, aka THE BIG EMPTY, which is a sequel to my very first novel, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE. It features Harry Rigby, erstwhile ‘research consultant’ and now, after serving the best part of five years in prison for manslaughter, a taxi-driver (not pictured, right), on the basis that killing your own brother is a pretty good way of making yourself the least private eye in town. Anyway, I said last week I’d post up the rest of the first chapter of THE BIG EMPTY, so here goes.
At the inquest they reckoned Finn punched down through the Audi’s boot from nine floors up. The boot concertina’d, puncturing the petrol tank. Shearing metal sparked.
The explosion blasted out the Audi’s windows. Mine too, front and back, jolting the cab off its front wheels. The airbag absorbed most of the flying glass but it punched me in the chest so hard it damn near broke ribs.
My fault, of course. I wasn’t tensed up expecting a guy to plummet nine floors into an Audi’s petrol tank. I was just sitting there smoking and tapping the steering-wheel to ABC, When Smokey Sings. Wondering if it wasn’t too late to swing around by The Cellars for a late one, maybe a game of pool.
Then, ka-boomski, I was semi-conscious, pain grating down my left side. Maybe I even blacked out. The heat got me moving, reaching around the deflating airbag to turn the key in the ignition, rolling the cab back until it was out of range. Then I squeezed out from behind the airbag and staggered to the Audi.
The heat was fierce but I was still half-dazed, so I dived in and grabbed his ankles. One of his moccasins slipped off as he came free and at first I thought I’d ripped him in half. Then I thought he’d dropped a dwarf on the Audi. Strange the things you think about when you’re trying not to think at all.
I dragged him away from the flames. That left a trail of blood and frying flesh stuck to the tarmac. The smell set my guts heaving, a sickly-sweet stench of burning pork. Then I realised why he seemed so short.
The impact had driven his head and shoulders back up into his torso. If you looked closely enough, there was still some remnant of what had once been his neck. But the head had smashed like pulpy melon.
I rang it in while globs of grey matter spat and shrivelled on the Audi’s glowing metalwork.
How it began was a balmy night, twenty past ten, the caller ID flashing Finn-Finn-Finn. I put down the book, turned on the radio to check his mood.
Not good. Tindersticks, Tiny Tears.
I picked up anyway. ‘How goes it?’
‘Not bad. You busy?’
‘How’s the weather?’
‘Balmy. You off on holidays?’
‘For how long?’
‘Three weeks if I can do it.’
‘You deserve it, man. See you later.’
I rang Herb.
‘Finn was on.’
‘What’s he looking?’
‘Same as last time.’
‘Alright. Give me ten minutes.’
‘It’ll be that by the time I get there. Put the kettle on.’
I switched off the cab’s light and eased out of the rank, turning right onto Wine Street towards the Strandhill Road. At the lights Tiny Tears segued into Take Me Out, Franz Ferdinand. He followed that with The Jam, Town Called Malice. By then I was turning off Strandhill up into Larkhill and zapping Herb’s gate.
Finn played good music but you had to be in the mood. Some nights he went off on a jag: Cohen, Drake, Walker, Waits. Santa Claus with a straight razor in his mitt, black dogs howling down the moon. Spend long enough driving a cab listening to Finn, you’ll wind up with a Mohawk cruising underage whores, trying to think of a politician it’d be worth the bullet to plug.
Herb was out back in the greenhouse, his mop of curly red hair just visible above staked rows of green. I ambled on down.
He looked to be receiving communion: hands together, palms up, a jagged leaf trapped between his thumbs. I waited as he drew his palms up along the length of the leaf in a delicate operation: too much pressure and the leaf breaks off, not enough and the oil stays put. Herb could’ve done it on the back of a jet-ski.
When the leaf slid away, he began rubbing the heels of his palms together. A long brown needle appeared.
‘Finn’s same again,’ he said.
‘What about it?’
‘That’s three bags, right?’
‘He got three last month too.’
Herb didn’t do half-measures. Primo bud, 50-gram bags: sweet as Bambi going down, a kick like Thumper dreaming snares.
‘He has his guy down in the college,’ I said.
‘Except now it’s May and the students are gone home. Who’s he dealing to, the janitors?’
‘Want me to have a word?’
‘Don’t make like it’s a big deal. Just suss him out.’
We headed up to the house. I made the coffee. Herb built a jay, just the single brown needle in a couple of skins. He never touched the grass he sold on. That came in from Galway to be cut with the oregano he grew in the greenhouse alongside the tomatoes, chilies, red and green peppers. In among the legit flora was Herb’s homegrown, a cross-pollination it had taken him two years to get just right. It’d been worth the wait. If you ever see a levitating rhino, you’re smoking Herb’s brew. Or the rhino is.
He sprawled in his Ezy-Chair flipping channels, the sound down. ‘How’re the idiots?’ he said, handing the joint across.
Herb didn’t get out a lot. It wasn’t a phobia, he just didn’t like people. Herb’s credo: always assume everyone’s an idiot.
He’d been a photographer once, a good one, hooked up with an agency. We’d been a team freelancing local news and syndicating to the nationals. I did the hack work while Herb combined shutterbug with digging up background material on the web.
Then Herb got his face stove in. Someone had told someone else that Herb had a photograph the someone else wanted. I was the someone who’d done the telling. Inadvertently, as it happened. Not that the who mattered. The bruisers were still walking around, free to stove at will. Herb stayed home, his complexion pasty, skin doughy. The way it can get when most of both jaws and one cheekbone are underpinned by steel plate.
They’d wrecked his computers too, his dark room, everything worth anything. So Herb had the house torched, cashed in the insurance. Moved out to Larkhill, installed security gates, CC cameras. Invested in a little grass. Now he was a local player, freelance, paying subs to the Morans and clearing two or three grand a month.
Chickenfeed, for some. And Herb could’ve been doing treble that, multiples, if he’d gotten into coke and E, maybe even smack. But Herb liked it steady, sure and under the radar. The way he saw it, no cop was busting his hump for Public Enemy No # 1,027.
The cab was an idea I’d picked up inside. A front to get him onto the Revenue’s books and keep them sweet. So no one got the urge to pick up the phone and ring the Criminal Assets Bureau, wondering how no-income Herb could afford a four-bed on its own grounds out in the burbs. The little tax he did pay he claimed back in VAT, running expenses, all that, with the bonus of the cab being good cover for punting deals on to his regulars.
‘Had a guy in the back earlier on,’ I said. ‘He reckoned he could get me a gun.’
‘You ask him if he could get you a gun?’
‘Fucking idiot. By the way.’ He fumbled with his cell phone, tossed it across. He’d called up a text message: Herbie – cn u remind Hry he has Ben’s PARENT-TEACHER mting tmoro 2pm? Ta, Dee.
‘Shit,’ I said.
‘Will you make it?’
‘Have to. Dee reckons she has a stock-take on at work.’
‘So when are you supposed to sleep?’
‘My zeds wouldn’t be one of Dee’s priorities, Herb.’
He shrugged and switched off the TV. Turned on the stereo, tuned it to Finn. Nick Drake, Black Dog. One of Finn’s favourites. We listened in silence. Herb cracked first.
‘I got some Motown in there,’ he said, pointing at his CD rack. ‘I want you to bring it down to the docks, tie that part-time fucking philanthropist to his chair and tell him he’s getting no more score until I hear Smokey.’
‘Will do.’ I nodded at the TV. ‘Anything good on later?’
‘You coming back?’
‘Might as well stay up after I knock off. Want me to grab a DVD?’
‘Something black-and-white,’ he said. ‘The kind where they crack wise and smoke a lot.’
I swung around by Blockbusters and picked up Duck Soup, Groucho on the cover tipping ash off his cigar. By then the orange light was showing, so I crossed town to the all-night station on Pearse Road, filled up.
It was better out in the suburbs, and it was mostly all suburbs, but the town was a heart-attack of concrete and chrome. Old streets, high and narrow, arteries that had thickened and gnarled so the traffic trickled or didn’t move at all. The light a frozen glare shot with greens and reds, blinking pink neon, fluorescent blues. Boom-boom blasting from rolled-down windows, the deep bass pulsing out muscles of sound.
On a bad night it took fifteen minutes to crawl the two hundred yards along Castle Street into Grafton Street. The mob shuffling out of the chippers wore hoodies over baggy denims, the dragging hems frayed. Night of the Living McDead. The girls in cropped tops over bulging bellies with hipster jeans showcasing cheese-cutter thongs. In case someone might think they weren’t wearing any underwear at all, maybe.
I skipped O’Connell Street, heading east along John Street, turning north down Adelaide and then west at the new bridge onto Lynn’s Dock, a grapefruit moon hanging low above the quays. Finn playing The Northern Pikes, Place That’s Insane. On along Ballast Quay to the docks proper, a spit of land jutting out into the sea, maybe forty acres of crumbling warehouse facing open water. Behind the warehouses lay a marshy jungle of weeds. Once in a while there was talk of turning it into a nature preserve, a bird sanctuary, but no one ever did anything about it. The birds came and went anyway.
Down at the breakwater the Port Authority building was nine stories of black concrete, a finger flipping the bird to the town. Sligo’s Ozymandias, our monument to hubris, built back in the ’60s when Lemass had all boats on a rising tide and the docks were buzzing, a North Atlantic entry point for Polish coal, Norwegian pine, Jamaican sugar, Australian wool. Oil tankers moored down at the deepwater. Russians slipped ashore and never went to sea again. The first African, a Nigerian, was a celebrity. They called him Paddy Dubh and he never had to pay when he bought a pint of stout.
Then the ’70s slithered in. Crude oil went through the roof. The coal stopped coming, then the sugar. The channel silted up. Paddy had to buy his own stout. Things got so bad the Industrial Development Authority had to buy the PA building and then lease back two of the nine stories to the Port Authority. Even that was a farce, the IDA loaning the PA the money to pay the lease.
Then the ’80s, a good decade to be a weed or a rat. Everyone forgot about the docks, or tried to.
Bob Hamilton came in like the cavalry. He’d pretty much dry-lined every last square inch of Thatcher’s London, and when they finally kicked out the Iron Lady, Big Bob took that as his cue. Came home in ’91, sniffed the wind. Liquidated every last asset of Hamilton Holdings and diversified into Irish real estate. Joined the Rotary Club, the Tennis Club and damn near every other club in town bar the Tuesday night chess in the Trades. Turned up on the board of the local IDA about four months before he bought up sixteen acres of docklands, which included the PA building and not a lot of anything else.
A rumour went around that Big Bob was insider trading: investment on its way, a port rejuvenation, Bob all set to make a killing. No one believed it. Not the bit about insider trading; no one gave a Jap’s crap about that. It was the one about investment that got the lines all a-chortle over at the brew.
The investment never did arrive, although there was a killing of sorts three years later when Bob’s brand new Beamer wound up in the deepwater late one January evening, Bob still at the wheel. Finn told me the official verdict was death by misadventure but the inquest failed to offer a satisfactory reason as to why the Beamer’s windows might have been open down at the deepwater late one January evening.
There were few lights still working down at the docks. The quays lay open, no guard rail, the sheer drop interrupted only by rusting containers, trailers of mouldy timber, piles of abandoned scrap metal. I tooled along the quays in second gear, the tarmac pot-holed and cracked, verges crumbling. If you squinted, the road looked like a Curly Wurly. High weeds lined both sides of the road, clumping in the bricked-up doorways of the warehouses. The day had been hot and it was still warm, the acrid hum of melting tar thickening the air.
I turned into the PA’s yard and saw a sleek maroon Saab gleaming under the single bare light over the door. Finn’s pirate station was a one-man show and DJs playing Leonard Cohen don’t get groupies since John Peel passed on, bless his cotton socks, so I crossed the yard in a wide arc and eased in behind Finn’s battered black Audi, parking tight to the wall.
The Saab flashed me. I waited. Nothing else happened, so I got out and locked the car, strolled around to the PA’s door.
The driver got out of the Saab and put a hand up, palm out. ‘Far enough, pal.’
‘How far wouldn’t be enough?’
‘Just about there.’
He was built like an upside-down cello. A straight jab to the chin would need to set up base camp on his sternum before making its final assault. Out back a short ponytail compensated for the balding on top. He wore a white shirt, a thin black tie. Through the Saab’s open door I could see a black peaked cap on the passenger seat, its peak shiny patent leather.
I pulled up six inches shy of where I guessed his swing would land. ‘I’m expected,’ I said.
‘Not by me you’re not.’
The trouble there is, if one guy gets to thinking he can tell you what you can do, it’s only a matter of time before the rest start feeling the same. Then you’re on the skids. And I was already on the skids.
‘I’m going up,’ I said.
‘Fine by me, pal. Just not yet.’
I craned my neck to glance straight up at the ninth floor, the window’s yellow glow. ‘He makes you wear a hat?’ I said.
That didn’t work him at all. ‘You know what I like?’ he said. ‘Cars, threads and quim. This way, I get paid to drive and wear good suits.’
‘Two out of three ain’t bad.’
‘I make out.’ He up-jutted his chin. ‘Finn’s expecting you?’
He looked meaningfully at the cab. ‘Something wrong with his Audi?’
‘Other than it’s not a Porsche?’
‘Too fucking right. Jimmy,’ he said then, by way of introduction.
He leaned in, sniffed the air, making a point of it, letting me know he’d marked my cards. ‘Stay useful, Rigby.’
© Declan Burke, 2009
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.