Phillie's Last Dance
By Ray Banks
Ray Banks' short fiction has appeared in Thrilling Detective, HandHeld Crime, Hardluck Stories, and Bullet Magazine. He lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne with his beloved wife (who doubles as his favourite editor) and a triumvirate of evil cats. He works as a receptionist, but maintains his heterosexuality.
Neville Street, going up towards the casino on St James Boulevard, some new fancy way of saying the A6082 or Blenheim Street. A pub called The Slug And Beet was tucked away around the corner, the kind of place people went to if they were over sixty and hadn't a pot to piss in.
Tony said, “You know the gadgie. Big fat guy, looks like a white Solomon Burke.”
Jacko had no idea who the hell Solomon Burke was but he nodded anyway. The way Tony spoke, he assumed everyone knew what he knew. Tony had the brains, Tony had the contact, and Jacko was just along because Tony liked him. He said that a lot. He liked Jacko.
Tony was the guy people went to. He said anything could be got, anything you wanted. You just had to know where to look for it. There was the stereo system that made his entire car vibrate with every brassy horn section brawl. Not rap, not hip-hop, but high quality obscure soul was Tony’s bag. And nobody called him on it, not one. A few people mouthed, but nobody found the voice to call him out.
This was all down to the contact. The boys knew about a guy, but couldn’t describe him if they had a gun to their heads. This was Tony’s and Tony’s alone. Back when he’d done serious time down Durham nick, when he was shacked up with the hungry men with the serious libidos, Tony’d fallen into some company, bad or badder. And he’d got a contact, a man he never referred to by name. At first, nobody believed him, reckoned on it being the usual fantasy the young guys had. But then Tony started making money, high money, sweet money. The kind of money, the unemployed dads on the street would watch him spend with their tongues too thick for their mouths.
Tony looked at them all with the kind of smug glee only a working man could manage. And he liked Jacko, so Jacko would get the work too because despite his rep, he was a smart little bastard. He didn’t have much in the way of knowledge, but he was The King of Common Sense when it came to saving his own hide and, by extension, Tony’s hide.
Now they sat amongst the pensioners, a couple of pints in front of them. Jacko had a rollie on the go. He sucked at it until his eyes felt like they were about to pop, then picked a strand of baccy from his bottom lip.
"Simple job," said Tony. "Honest, man. It's a simple job."
Jacko set the rollie in an ashtray and sipped at his pint. "I dunno. Sounds dangerous."
"What's dangerous about it?"
"The fuckin' fire's dangerous about it."
"Fire's fine, man. Fire can be tamed. You just need to know what you're doing."
"And you know what you're doing?"
"I know what I'm doing. I'll be the one lighting the fucker. You just need to be there to splash the petrol."
Jacko shook his head. His fringe flopped forward into his eyes; he pushed it back with one bony hand. "I dunno. I don't like fire."
Tony smiled, showing one grey tooth. "You're fuckin' kidding me."
"I don't like fire. I don't like it."
"It's a simple burn job, man. And it's good money. You don't want to do it, I'll find someone who will."
That was the crux of the matter. Jacko looked up from his beer, narrowed his eyes. There he was, Tony the tiger, leaning back in his seat, the beginnings of belly hanging on his thin frame. Decked out in the expensive clothes, real labels, none of your knock-off market shit. Looking the business. And Jacko, yellow fingers and a broken rib that'd never healed right. Dressed like his social status. Needed the money badly because he had a taste for amphetamines.
"This is on the up-and-up," he said. "This is a strict insurance job, aye?"
"And what's the pay like?"
Tony leaned forward and rubbed out his Marlboro next to Jacko's smoking rollie. "It's sweet, marra."
Phillie stood six foot four and carried about a sixth of a tonne around with him. His bowling ball head sat on a near non-existent neck, his stomach rounded and pushing the buttons on his over-sized shirt. People called him all sorts, but it was water off a duck's back. Phillie didn't give a shit about that. All he cared about was the diner.
And the diner was in trouble.
He walked slowly towards the front door and slapped the sign to Closed. The last time, he thought. Used to be, the place was open nearly twenty-four seven, catching the students and the croupiers. Used to be, the place was popular. Cheap food, kitsch surroundings, and a fat guy behind the counter. The lunch trade was good, the dinner trade was better. But then the pubs started with the food, and the rent soared.
He eased himself into a chair with a sharp sigh. A bottle of vodka stood on the plastic tablecloth. A glass next to it. Some guys like to drink, he told himself. Some other guys like to eat. Phillie liked to do both. Over on the hotplates, six thick rashers of bacon and a couple of eggs were bubbling, spitting away. He poured himself a shot, bottle freezing to the touch, and swallowed it back in a thick gulp. Tasted like water, went down like petroleum jelly. He moved back from the table, pushed past the counter and flipped the bacon. Already crispy around the edges.
Time had been bad, stretched out like elastic only to slap him in the face when the pressure became too much. This place, this diner, had been his dream since he was a chubby little kid watching American movies on a black and white portable in his Nanna's front room. Glitz, lowdown glamour and the sweetness that only those movies provided. He wanted something like that. He knew he'd never be the Fonz, but was quite happy to end up as Al.
Phillie dragged the bacon onto a warm plate, scooped up the eggs and dumped them nearby. He grabbed a knife and fork, returned to the table and poured himself another shot. Outside, the night had turned blustery, wind whooping against the windows.
The fat man drank another and started in on his dinner.
"Who's this guy you know, then?" asked Jacko.
"Dunno what you mean."
"You know. This contact, man."
"He's a contact." Tony knocked back the rest of his pint, checked his watch. "We should lash on, mate."
"Howeh, tell us, Tone. We worked together a lot, you trust us, you can tell us."
Tony stood, threw what was left of his cigarette into the ashtray. He tapped the side of his nose. "Better you don't know, marra. What you don't know won't hurt you."
"C'mon, man. Tell us."
"You coming or not? We got stuff to do."
"Aye, course I am."
"Good. Van's outside."
The van was a white transit with muck up the sides. Someone had written "Dutch is a wanka" by the passenger window. The wind had picked up and Jacko's hair flew in his screwed-up face. Tony looked impeccable as he pulled open the back doors. Two dirty petrol cans sat in the back of the van.
"That's all we need," said Tony. He pulled out his Zippo and flicked it open. "And I've got the light."
Jacko shivered in the cold.
Phillie found himself with half a bottle gone and tears rolling down his face. He pushed his glass to one side and ran the heel of his hand over his cheeks. Some things weren't worth crying over. Some things, no matter how much you wept over them, they weren't going to change. Like being long-time dead, like facing that grim reality yourself. They were inexorable and they couldn't be sugared.
A guy who called himself a doctor examined Phillie's prostate more than necessary. Spent so much time with his finger up him, Phillie demanded dinner and dancing. The guy who called himself a doctor smiled and went about his business.
It had started in the usual way. Phillie would rush to the toilet, squirt out a few drops that felt like they were passing through broken glass. Then repeat as required. There was lower back pain, which his GP passed off as a symptom of his weight problem. Stop smoking, lose weight, cut down on the good life. Phillie reminded him that the good life was the only thing he knew.
But when blood appeared in his urine, tests were done. And when the results came back, Phillie seriously considered killing himself. In a way, he'd known already. He'd planned a suitable exit, complete with choir and bullet wound to the head. But it was unfeasible. In his previous profession, it'd been necessary to keep a piece around the house, but he couldn't bring himself to put it to his head.
Besides, he didn't want to mess up the diner any more than he had to.
Phillie choked out a laugh and wiped his face clean. Mess it up all they want, he reckoned. Times had changed. There were no gentlemen criminals anymore, just a bunch of charvas and wannabes who were packing with no class. When Phillie first opened the diner back in the eighties, the crew he had known were mostly gone. Now they were gone and forgotten.
He poured another shot and chewed the inside of his cheek.
The drive was a short one, Tony playing some Jools Holland thing to the max.
"This is Solomon Burke," he said.
"Thought it was Jools Holland."
"That's Solomon singing."
"Aye, I remember."
Tony pulled the van into a back street, away from the main road. He killed the engine with a twist of the wrist and they sat in silence. Jacko stared at a mangy dog intent on knocking over a wheely bin. Sniffing about, front paws on the lid. Something inside was driving the dog crazy.
"Look at that," he said.
"Should be shot."
"Should be fuckin' shot. Crawling with disease, them dogs. Bad as the fuckin' foxes."
"When'd you see a fox?"
"I seen 'em about."
Tony looked out the driver's side window. His mind was elsewhere. Concentrated on the light up the road. When that went out, they'd move. Not one second before. That was the brief. And he'd thought about it. If a light was on, there was someone in there. As soon as that light went out, they'd have to leg it.
He didn't want to think about it. His contact had given him strict instructions. No play, no pay. And since he'd paid up front, Tony didn't have much of a choice.
"What do we do now?" said Jacko.
Tony lit a cigarette, chucked one at Jacko. "We wait, mate. We wait."
Phillie brought the bottle with him to the counter, set it down and poured another. The shot glass tiny in his huge hand, he walked over to the front window and peered out at the street. He checked his watch; it was getting on to last orders. Soon the drunk and the staggering would be making their way down this street to the Metro and cab rank.
He knocked back his vodka, felt a burning belch rise up his throat.
This was stupid, he knew it. He could quite easily give up the good life, live the healthy life, eat pulses and greens and drink gripe water, whatever it took.
But what was the point? He'd made his bed a long time ago, and now he had to lie in it.
He remembered the ska clubs down the Quayside. He remembered meeting Marie there, seeing Bad Manners belt out "Special Brew" until it felt the roof was going to come down on them. They danced like they were having fits and left with their hearts beating hard and sweaty all over.
Phillie and Marie, the odd couple. Her with her tiny features and slight frame, him built like a brick shithouse. Her with her little secretary job, him bouncing the streets of Newcastle. Little Marie, taken away from him five years ago. Just not strong enough to hold onto her own frail little life.
And now Phillie was in the same boat. It was embarrassing to him. All that dodging he'd done, only to be felled by some nasty little cancer, eating him up from the inside. Better to go out with a bang, he thought.
Phillie clicked off the light, eased himself behind the counter, sat on the floor and took a swig from the bottle.
"That's it," said Tony.
Jacko blinked. "Eh?"
"The light's gone out. Time to go."
"Give it five, man."
"Someone turned out the light, someone's got to have time to get out," said Jacko.
Tony's face buckled inwards. "Fuck that. I know what I'm doing."
"Wait a fuckin' second -"
Tony was already out of the van. Jacko stepped out, got a gust of wind in the face that brought tears to his eyes.
"Tony, man. We can't do this now."
Tony pulled the petrol can out of the back of the van, handed one to Jacko. "We don't have much time."
"Fuck's the matter with you?"
Tony pushed on, Jacko following. A swift thump opened the back door, and the smell of stale chip fat crawled up their nostrils as they stepped into the diner storeroom.
"You make sure that door's open when it goes up, you hear me?" said Tony.
Jacko pulled a box, propped open the door. "Aye."
"Once this fire catches, I want to be out and gone before the smoke hits the ceiling."
Tony popped the cap on his petrol can and took a deep breath. Jacko watched him with a frown. This wasn't playing right. Something was up. He'd been unflappable before. Now they were here, Jacko could hear the cogs whirring.
"Right," he said. "Okay, right. Let's do this."
It took them ten minutes to empty the petrol over tabletops, along the floor, across the counter. Jacko bumped into chairs, stubbed his toe and realised the panic was settling in for the long haul. The dark made him jumpy, the petrol fumes stung his eyes and underneath it all, he needed out of there.
"We finished yet, man?"
Tony stood by the window, his empty petrol can by his feet.
"Aye, we're done."
"Then let's go."
"You go get the van warmed up. I'll do the same in here."
Jacko breathed out. "Kay," he said, and bolted for the door, one foot squeaking as it slipped on the floor.
Tony didn't move, stared out at the street. He could hear a drunken chorus somewhere, but it didn't really register.
"You still want to do this, Phillie?"
A voice came from behind the counter. "You do what you been paid to do, son."
Tony nodded, turned to the counter. The Zippo clicked as he brought it out of his pocket and touched a flame to the shining streak of petrol. A blue spark, then a dull whump as the flame took hold.
In the flickering light, Tony saw his contact smile. He ran for the door, smoke forming around him.
Phillie closed his eyes.
There he was, back in the club, back with Marie. And he was lighter, stronger, the fine big bastard specimen of man he'd once been. Marie looked up at him like he was some sort of God and he wrapped his arms around her, picked her up. She was giggling hard, breathing hard and Phillie was doing his version of the same.
They kissed as the horn section blared out a familiar refrain. I love you, yes I do, 'cause I know that you love-a me too…
The music grew louder, the dream more vivid; the past became the present. And there he was, waiting on one last dance with Marie before last orders.
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