SEDUCED by JERRY SYKES
Time and the vanity frame of TV had altered Frankie Stamps appearance - his bloated pink face resembled a kids fist raised in righteous anger, and his brittle grey hair floated around his head like some kind of private raincloud - but the cast of his mouth still refused to hold a smile.
As the interviewer flicked a conspiratorial glance at the camera and then asked Stamp how much of his character in the film had been based on his own experiences, Stamp turned and shot the home audience a look of dark indifference, his lips curled into a smile; it was a smile without a trace of humour, it was a smile that was no smile at all.
Jim Cole stared back at the screen with disbelief on his face. He shook his head and leaned forward in his seat, pushed his glasses back up the length of his nose.
It had been three decades since he had last seen Stamp - last seen him in motion, frozen images of him had often appeared in newpapers and magazines since his release from prison - three decades in which he had all but forgotten the snap of casual violence that Stamp held in his limbs like a child holds the gift of laughter in its face. Three decades since that cold December afternoon when he had stood with his fellow officers and watched as Stamp had been sentenced to fifteen-to-life for the attempted murder of a barman at the Twisted Globe, the barman caught with the skim from the insurance premium that Stamp had called to collect still in his pocket. Stamp had taken the barman into the cellar and beaten him with a half-full aluminium barrel until the barman had soiled himself and the smell had turned Stamp from the broken frame at his feet and pushed him back up the wooden stairs.
Following the trial a couple of tabloids had suggested that another more serious charge of murder had been dropped after the murder weapon, a rusted WWII revolver, had been stolen from an evidence locker in the basement of Kentish Town police station. The gun had been rammed into the ear of an Italian baker that had tried to hustle Stamps girlfriend in a nightclub, rammed deep into his ear before the trigger had been pulled. The gun had still been stuck in the Italians ear when the corpse had been found the following morning, broken and tossed into a rusted garage behind the parade of shops that housed the bakers.
Of course the police had denied the tale, denied that Stamp had been a suspect in the case, but in communities keen to see the establishment beaten, the fiction became the truth and the truth became folklore; and the folklore elevated Stamp from a marginal figure on the underworld into some kind of noble and gallant hero to stand alongside the Krays and the Great Train Robbers.
Jim Cole lit a cigarette and continued to stare at the TV, the interviewer now asking Stamp about the truth behind the rumours surrounding the murder. Stamp just looked back at him in silent contempt, slid his gaze across to the camera once more to check that the home audience was still out there, and then rode the silence until the interviewer lost his nerve and hustled a chef with flecks of food in his beard across the screen.
Cole took a sip of beer and looked across the bar to where a small kid sat on the carpet under a table eating a packet of crisps. The kid belonged to the landlords daughter and wandered around the pub all day while his mother was out at work. Cole reckoned the kid to be about three or four but already he had the deep chest rattle of a chainsmoker. Cole let out a sigh and turned back to the bar.
You see Frankie Stamp on TV this morning?
The barman rested his arms on the bar. Frankie Stamp? I hear hes a film star now, huh?
Thats what it looks like, said Cole. He took another sip of beer, moved around on his stool a little.
You were on the squad that put him down, said Maguire. No?
Cole hiked his shoulders. Sure. Set him on the trail to stardom seems like.
Strange times indeed. You kill a man in cold blood and end up in the movies.
Cant be right, said Cole, lost in thought for a moment. It cant be right. He blinked and took another sip of beer, lit a cigarette. The world seems to have forgotten about that poor kid at the Twisted Globe. All it seems to care about is the Italian, the baker. And theres no proof that Stamp even did that killing.
Maguire pointed a thick finger at Coles face, grinned. You were a copper. Since when did the truth get in the way of anythin interestin?
Cole shot him a half-smile and tipped the remainder of his beer into his mouth, pushed the glass across the bar. Just fill the glass, Maguire, he said, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
Maguire pulled another beer from the tap and put it on the bar in front of Cole.
You see the film? said Maguire.
Cole shook his head, no. Last time I went to the pictures, Robert Mitchum was still the tough guy.
Maguire let out a short laugh. I know what you mean there, Jim. I dont think me an Jenve been to the pictures since before we took over this place, he said, and twisted his finger in the air to indicate the pub.
Cole stared at the kid under the table, now picking bits of broken crisps from the floor and stuffing them in his mouth. Cole could see tufts of carpet stuck to the boys lips. I dont understand it, all this attention stacked on a killer.
It aint nothin new, said Maguire. Peopleve been backin the men in black hats for as long as I can remember.
Cole shuffled in his seat until he felt comfortable, waited for the film to start.
As he had told Maguire, it had been a long time since Cole had last sat in the stalls of a cinema. Not that he no longer liked films, it was just that it was easier to watch films on TV and video. Cheaper too, he couldnt believe how much hed just had to fork out, the price of a couple of video rentals at least.
One other thing about TV, you waited around long enough and you got to see just about any film you wanted. And since his retirement, Cole had seen plenty of films on TV, plenty of other stuff too, sitting around with nothing much else happening, nowhere else to go.
For a time, Cole had wandered along to the cop pubs and been greeted like he was still in the job, still spoke in the same tongue. But after a couple of months, it was like the word was out that he had in fact retired and had no place at the bar with the true cops, and the drinks had stopped appearing, the invites to celebrations folded and slipped back into pockets.
Cole had persevered, conned himself that it was an age thing, but after a couple of nights when he had sat on the fringes of a group of detectives and listened in wonder to the hard conversations, puzzled over the boundaries of copper and villain that appeared to have shifted seismically in the short time since his retirement, he had held his head high and walked away from the job for the last time.
The adverts seemed to go on forever, and the feature rolled around with Cole still in the toilet and he had to struggle past a couple of teens with buckets of popcorn on their laps to get back to his seat as the titles snapped across the screen in violent neon.
He had seen NYPD Blue enough times to follow the jagged camerawork, but the opening scenes of the film seemed to have been shot from a camera strapped to the tail of a dog as it chased another dog down the street, weaving in and out of pedestrian legs and passing traffic. A couple of cops chasing a kid down the street, green banknotes flapping from the pockets of his jacket.
And the music, like there was also a tin can tied to the dogs tail.
Cole eased back into his seat to watch the film, but after fifteen minutes he had the sense that he had seen it all before. Not the film itself, but behind all the flashing lights and modern music there was something cheap and familiar about the whole thing. A couple of times Cole recognised pieces from other movies, TV shows - a car chase, the spin of a gun, the manner in which someone would hitch off an overcoat as he entered a room expecting one of his sidekicks to catch it - and he would smile at the memories that surrounded the originals, solid images pinned down in time.
The film rattled along to a fast soundtrack more like a pop video or a cartoon and Cole soon tired of it, started to amuse himself between scenes that featured Stamp in building a list of stolen goods - films and TV shows the film had lifted from: Bullitt, The Sweeney, Callan, something with Michael Caine in it (Get Carter or Mona Lisa, perhaps both), GoodFellas. The list seemed to be endless and Cole soon tired of that as well, shuffled in his seat to ease the numbness in the back of his legs.
Stamp had the part of some kind of drug baron and club owner, not a large part, a few lines at most, but the role gave him a rogueish charm that he had not had in real life. And to its credit, the film did not make too much of Stamps appearance, although Cole picked up on what he took to be a couple of references to the killing of the Italian baker. In one scene, one of the barmen in Stamps club had been shot in the shoulder when he had been caught in bed with the wife of one of the clubs regulars. The shot had left him with a comic deafness in one ear and later in the film, each time Stamp spoke to him he would have to cup his hand around the ear and lean in towards Stamps unsmiling face, a look of pain stretched across his features. In a second scene, Stamp had concluded a meeting in his office by pushing himself back from his desk, rubbing his hand over his stomach and announcing, Any of you guys hungry? I could murder a pizza. Balloons of laughter had burst throughout the cinema at that one, loud and insistent.
From the reactions that the audience gave Stamp it was clear that he was held in high regard, a hero for our times, a man who had fought the law and won.
But less than an hour into the film Cole had seen enough and he pushed along the row of seats and left the cinema with knots of frustration burning in his stomach. He bought a pack of cigarettes and stood in the lobby smoking and staring out at the fat drops of rain that fell from the canvas awning onto the cracked pavement beneath.
On the wall facing the ticket booth, a glass-fronted frame held copies of reviews of the films running at the cinema and Cole squinted through the reflections from the overhead lights on the glass to find if the acceptance of Stamp as cult figure held credence across the spectrum of magazines and newspapers.
Before he could read the first of the reviews, Cole felt his gaze pull to the right and focus on a photograph of Stamp and a woman in her late-thirties. There was something about the serious set of the womans mouth, the look of steel determination in her face that triggered memories, memories that spun just out of his reach, on the tip of his mind.
Cole took a step to the side and stood in front of the photograph, stared through the glass.
After a couple of moments, time began to crumble and fall from the photograph and Cole found himself looking at a thirteen-year-old girl in pink National Health glasses, her dark brown hair pulled back into pigtails tied with ribbons. Her name was Molly Robinson and she was the daughter of one of Coles fellow CID officers at Kentish Town station. She had been a serious child that would tell her father off for attempting to lure her from her studies - telling her to rest a little, take a break and have some fun.
The woman had her hand in Stamps and looked at him with a combination of love and admiration. Cole lifted his hand and ran his finger along the caption at the bottom of the photograph: ... and his new wife Molly ...
Cole closed his eyes and squeezed the lids tight, shook his head. No, this is not possible, he told himself, this is not happening. She had been such a serious girl, held no interest in her fathers job whatsoever. Walked out of the room when he told lurid and humourous stories from the station. Cole stared at the photograph once more, touched the glass with his fingers and searched for the flaw that would expose the photograph for the hoax that it must have been.
The house looked tired and worn, a number of tiles had fallen from the roof like broken teeth and a pane of glass on the first floor had been cracked and repaired with cardboard and sellotape, the cardboard darkening in the dampness. Cole blinked and for a moment he saw a drunk being carried home between a couple of sober colleagues, makeshift repairs holding his spectacles together. He blinked again and the house reappeared.
Cole pushed open the gate and walked the length of the path to the door, rapped on the door with the back of his hand. He turned and looked off down the street. A couple of kids in school uniform pulling on bottles of alcopops stood and stared back at him, an old man in a suit, feral contempt in their faces.
Cole turned to see the door open a fraction and Megan Robinsons face poked through the gap, her hands gripped on the doorframe. A puzzled smile ghosted across her face.
Cole reached out his hands. Megan, is that you? Howre you doin? Its good to see you.
Megan frowned. I thought it was you, she said, and headed back into the house.
Cole shrugged and followed her, shut the door behind him. She led him into the kitchen and asked if he wanted a cup of tea by waving the kettle at him. He nodded and took a seat at the table.
What brings you around here? said Megan. Havent seen you in a while.
No, said Cole, and felt the heat of embarrassment rise in his face. Bill Robinson had been his best friend and back when he and Bill were still on the force, Cole and his wife had been regular visitors to the Robinson house. The four of them had even taken a couple of holidays together, weekends in Brighton and Southend. He couldnt remember the last time he had seen Megan.
Retirement treating you okay? Megan lifted mugs from a cupboard and set them on the counter, dropped a spoon into one of the mugs.
Cole shrugged, smiled. Its kind of difficult having nothin to do all day, you know.
Thats what Bill said. Not that he had much time to be bored, no time to do nothing. Bill Robinson had died from a heart attack three months after retiring from the force after twenty-five years.
No, that mustve been hard... said Cole, the words fading on his breath. He had started to feel uncomfortable, had the feeling that he had caught Megan in a combative mood and wanted to be out of there as soon as possible. Hows Molly, he said. Married yet, or is she still too busy with her studies?
Megan turned and glared at him. Is that supposed to be funny or something?
Cole leaned back in his seat, faked shock. What? Whatd I say?
You dont know?
Know what? said Cole, still holding the shock mask up to his face - this was more difficult than it looked.
Megan took a step closer, pulled a seat from the table and sat down. She offered Cole a cigarette and lit one for herself. Molly. My daughter, our daughter. You dont know that she married Frankie Stamp?
Cole paused, leaned into the table. Frankie Stamp? The Frankie Stamp?
I hope to God theres not another Frankie Stamp, said Megan.
Cole pushed his glasses back up his nose and looked out through the window at the shaded clouds that trudged across the sky, back at Megan. He could see the dark reflection of the clouds at the back of her eyes. I had no idea, he said. What happened?
I dont know, dont know for sure. It was while she was at college, right after Bill died. She was always really close to him and I think his death hit her hard, particularly as she was away from home at the time. In the middle of her exams. Megan shook her head, took a pull on the cigarette, rolled the tip on the edge of a saucer in the centre of the table.
And Stamp - how did he fit into all this? Cole had forgotten about acting shocked, he needed to hear what had happened.
Bill used to tell Molly that Stamp had been the only one that got away, the only one smart enough to keep out of his reach. I think she began to think of him as some kind of... oh, I dont know, some kind of romantic hero, I suppose. She began to write to him in prison - letters, postcards - and after a month or so, he started to write back, asking her for a photograph or a lock of hair or something, stuff like that. Soon enough, he just kind of took over. She had always loved her father and here was a man that had beaten him, escaped him. A man that could fill the space hed left behind. And once he came out... Her voice faded and fell away.
Cole tapped the tip of his cigarette in saucer, listened to sound of his own breath in the stillness of the kitchen, the rising call of the kettle.
We had a blazing row, said Megan after a couple of minutes.
Cole glanced at her, at the far-off look on her face and realised at once that he had fallen out of the loop, that Megan had transferred the conversation to the quiet of her head, triggered memories.
I told her, I dont want to see no kids with the blood of a murderer in their hearts... A thin tremor in her voice made her seem scared and vulnerable, made Cole want to escape. It was the part of the job he had hated the most, talking to bereaved relatives and watching the pain and anger and frustration break on their faces.
You know where she lives now?
... in the papers, I dont recognise her...
Cole reached across the table and touched her on the arm. Megan? he said. Megan, you have her address?
Megan fell back in her seat a little and shook the bitter stare from her face, narrowed her eyes at him. Sorry, Joe. Address?
You have Mollys address? said Cole, irritation lapping at the edge of his voice.
Cole left the car in a residents parking space off the High Street and walked back to the front of the red brick building. He stopped and leaned on the railing that ran the length of the parade of shops and scanned the dull facade, the colours of the painted bakers sign on the brick faded through time and the choke of traffic. The late afternoon shadow of a streetlight ran from the lower left hand corner of the building to the top right like a private sundial.
The bakers had closed down soon after the murder of the Italian, soon after its short tenure as the most notorious location in London when children would act out the murder in front of the store, and an estate agents now occupied the space. Polaroids of brick shapes floated behind thick glass windows and rippled on the breeze each time the door opened.
Cole stuffed his hands deep into his pockets and walked to the end of the parade and turned down the narrow path that led to the cinder road at the back of the shops. He counted the buildings as he walked to the back of the estate agents, but in his heart he understood that there was little chance that he would not recognise the garage.
Constructed of brick and corrugated iron and tilted to the side with time, the garage looked like the tip of a taller building that had fallen into the ground. The windows on either side were filmed with grease and dust and the wooden door had twisted from the jamb with the tilt.
Cole stepped through the trash at the side of the garage and raised himself on to the tips of his boots and peered in through the dirt stained glass. The concrete floor of the garage was almost clear, just a few rusted cans of paint in one corner and a stack of yellowed newspapers bundled together with string under the opposite window. Thin beams of light broke through the rotted wood and speared the darkness.
Cole walked to the front of the garage and hefted the rusted padlock in his hand, pulling a couple of the screws that held the hasp to the door loose. He pulled again and the hasp fell into his hand and he dropped it to the floor, kicked it to one side. He glanced up and down the cinder road, pushed his fingers into the gap between the doors and tugged. The door opened a fraction and then jammed against a packed wedge of dirt. Cole kicked at the dirt with his foot and pulled the door back another foot or so, the dried hinges tearing the still air.
Cole stood and looked into the garage for a moment, the chill of remembrance a second skin. He blinked and the blurred after-image of the Italian on the concrete floor ghosted across his retinas, faded in a whorl of red and black and disappeared once more.
He pushed the door closed and turned and walked back to his car.
Cole took a detour past his house to pick up a couple of things and then headed out to the address that Megan Robinson had handed to him on a page torn from a battered address book beside the telephone. He didnt have the heart to ask her if she had the address written down somewhere else, if she had just handed over the sole point of contact with her daughter.
It had started to rain on the half-hour drive and as he pulled up to the kerb a curtain of rain sparkled around the house and garden in sodium spectrum colours.
Cole climbed out of the car and pulled the collar of his raincoat up around his neck, pushed open the iron gate and highstepped across the puddles and up to the front door. He checked his watch and then rapped on the door with the side of his fist, stepped into the shadows at the side of the house.
A light went on in the hall and the door eased open a little and a slice of light fell onto the stone path. The scratch of an old mans breath, and then Cole heard the door open another fraction and the sound of cord trouser legs rub across one another. Whats that? came a harsh voice. Whos out there?
Stamp: his thin shadow stretched the length of the path, faded and blurred around the head and shoulders.
Fuelled with a burst of adrenaline, Cole jumped in front of the door and reached out and took hold of Stamps shirt in his fist, pulled and jerked the old man across the threshold of the house. Taken in surprise, Stamp twisted and fell onto the path and landed on his hip with a loud thud, splintered nerves shooting the length of his limbs in an unconscious attempt to dissipate the pain.
Cole rolled Stamp onto his back and pulled the gun from the pocket of his raincoat, stuck the tip of the barrel into the tight skin across the old mans forehead. Stamp knotted his face and blinked at the raindrops that bloated his tears and rippled across his hot face.
Get up, said Cole. Cmon, lets get out of here. Theres someplace I need you to see.
You kept the gun, said Stamp, the tone of his voice flat and hard. His face was hidden in shade, flickering streetlights painting all but the deep folds in his skin a bright white at random intervals.
An old cop needs a little insurance, said Cole, and pushed the gun a little harder into Stamps temple.
I thought you mustve pitched it in the river by now. You sure thats the same gun? It looks like the same gun. Stamp started to turn his head. Here, let me take a look.
Cole jabbed at his temple with the gun once more. Look where youre going, he said, and glanced out of the windscreen, then back at Stamp. And keep your hands on the wheel.
Stamp drove in silence for a couple of minutes, took a right without prompt.
Sure its the same gun, said Cole. What, you thought it had disappeared for real?
Stamp shrugged. Idve thought that youdve had more to lose than me in keeping it, he said. Holding on to it.
You reckon? said Cole. That what you think? Even now, even now youre some kind of movie star?
Stamp smiled, the dull sheen of his teeth breaking from the dark face. You see the movie, huh? Whatd you think, you like it?
Cole said nothing, stared past Stamp and out through the kaleidoscope patterns of rain on the glass.
That bad, huh? said Stamp. He checked the rear view, then cut across the oncoming traffic and turned into the High Street. He caught sight of the parade of shops up ahead and felt the pressure of the gun ease off a little on his temple.
Cole had left the door open on his first trip to the garage that afternoon and he pushed Stamp through the door into the darkness, the fall of light from a high window the sole illumination on the scene. Pale shadows echoed the movements of the two men in the garage.
Cole lit a cigarette and then held the lighter out in front of him, the gun in his other hand pointed at Stamp bunched on the floor. He flicked the gun in the direction of the piles of newspaper. Pull up a seat.
Stamp looked at Cole with a mask of bored contempt on his face. He felt no fear for fear had never been a part of his life, and he had tired of Cole and his foolish game. As far as he was concerned, his connection to the garage had ended a long time back. He shook his head and pulled the short stack of papers across the concrete floor and climbed and sat on top of them, rested his arms on his knees and let his hands hang loose.
You recognise this place?
Stamp angled his face around the corners of the garage, precise. What do you want, Cole?
Cole took a step closer. That smell, he said, and took a deep breath through his nose. The smell of forgotten time, dont you think? Lost time.
All I smell is dampness, said Stamp. Dampness and some kind of rodent shit. He hiked his shoulders, crossed his arms and gripped opposite biceps with his hands. And its getting cold, he said.
Dont worry, this wont take long, said Cole. Youll soon be out of here.
Stamp looked up at Cole, crinkled his eyes in question.
You remember this place? This is where it all started, your movie career? said Cole. A film star, youre a film star because people think you killed someone. Funny, huh? Killed someone and dumped them in this room, this garage. You remember?
Is that what this is about, huh? Stamp leaned forward on the stack of newspapers. You jealous, Cole? You jealous of that fact?
Cole felt his grip on the pistol tighten, the snap of the muscles in his jaw attempt to pull out a grin on his face.
You think that if the public knew the truth then itd be you up on that screen? That itd be you getting your crack licked by tuppenny celebrities? Stamp sneered, rubbed at his forehead with the tips of his fingers. Whats the problem here, Cole? You dont think we paid you enough the first time around, you think you were cheated?
Cole snapped the lighter closed in his fist, and then jumped forwards and rammed the gun into Stamps mouth, rode the momentum until Stamp cracked his head on the floor. The gun fell loose and Cole scrambled to pick it up, then rammed it back into Stamps mouth, cracked teeth. Some kind of fuckin movie star, screamed Cole, tight bursts of chill breath breaking on his tongue. Some kind of fuckin movie star. Eat lead, movie star.
* * *
Cole pushed the tip of another slice of pizza into his mouth, took a sip of beer. He frowned and looked at the man in the seat across from him at the canteen table.
The director sighed and looked back at Cole. Im still not sure about Eat lead, Joe. Its such a movie cliché, a gangster cliché. Something out of the forties or fifties, Bogart and Edward G Robinson. I think we should avoid clichés.
People talk in clichés all the time, said Cole.
The movie star bits okay. Im fine with that, thats great. Its just the Eat lead part.
But I was there, remember? I know what I said, said Cole, and his lips parted but the cast of his mouth refused to hold a smile.