Reedsy First Chapter Award: And the winner is...
We've had the pleasure of reading the high standard of first chapters that have been coming in since Reedsy first opened its doors with their challenge: to submit the first chapter of a self-written book to win a £200 spend on the Reedsy platform.
The winner of the Reedsy First Chapter Award is: Emma Millward.
For those who are unaware, Reedsy started in 2014 with the aim of giving the publishing world a kick-up the archaic backside by making it easier for people to self-publish, bringing together all the pieces of the puzzle (designers, marketeers, publicists etc) that are required in doing so within their platform.
This allows the writers to concentrate on the writing task at hand with confidence that the other aspects are taken care of.
And with permission from Emma, we present to you the entire first chapter that wowed the Reedsy judges.
'WITNESS' by Emma Millward
CHAPTER 1: Inauspicious Beginnings
The body was found draped over a display of fresh bananas. Viscous red blood had tainted the yellow fruit and dripped down onto the white linoleum floor.
The cause of death was clear enough: the handle of a large knife jutted out of the man’s chest, with just a hint of steel visible beneath. Whoever had killed the man must have been strong to plunge the blade in so far. A police officer was leaning over the body, squinting hard at the weapon.
“Pike’s gang again,” he said to his colleague as he stood back up. “This is their calling card. Boss won’t be too happy. This is their third kill in as many months.”
“What calling card?”
“Look at the handle.” He drew his partner's attention to the base of the knife, where a small cross has been carved into the black plastic coating. “The knives are always different brands, some cheap, some seriously fucking expensive, but they always carve 'em. Always.” His friend shook his head in confusion. “Seems like a good way to get caught.”
“Different body, same ridiculous routine. We spend days going round, looking for witnesses, taking statements, talking to Pike’s boys, and what’ll we get? Nothing.”
“Too scared to talk?”
“Precisely. If a murder takes place in a shop on a busy street in the middle of the day and no one hears or sees anything, did it really happen?” The cop rolled his eyes. “Every one of Pike’s boys will have an alibi that is conveniently backed up by one of the other boys and we’ll go round in circles until the next time.”
They sighed simultaneously, looking at the victim’s body with frustration more than pity or revulsion. They had become inured to this kind of sight; it was only the thought of all the pointless work caused by the dead man that was provoking any reaction at all.
The older policeman, fifteen years on the force and a resident of the area he patrolled, closed his notebook and put it back in his pocket. “Come on, let’s get this started. I’ll interview the shopkeepers. You can go and confirm that all the CCTV in the place was miraculously not working when this happened.”
“Are you gonna tell them about the carving?” the other man asked. He was only in his second year and was still learning the ropes when it came to guys like Pike.
“Of course. They know the deal, and they know there’s nothing we can do about it. Better we let Pike take their money than let his boys take their lives.” Another sigh. “Boss really isn’t going to like this.”
Kenny Wilkinson paced the length of his shop, waiting for the bell to ring as his next customer entered. Not that the next guy through the door would be a customer, he thought. Oh no, it would be the police this time. Again. The previous murder Pike’s boys had committed had been right across the road. Kenny had seen not everything but enough, and he knew not to say anything.
When the policeman had arrived, both sides had played their roles to perfection. The officer had asked his questions and taken down notes as if he truly expected to learn something of use about the murder, and Kenny had acted the part of bemused innocent to a tee. Kenny knew it would be harder this time.
The murder had been right next door, and those thin walls didn’t leave much to the imagination. He had heard the remonstrations from Pike’s boys, the usual stuff about protection money being late, and he had listened as Mr Zhao, the friendly grocer with the funny accent, had pleaded for more time, for mercy, and finally for his life.
But it had been for nothing. Kenny had covered his ears but the strange wet thud of metal into flesh was unmistakeable. Since then, he had been waiting for the police, pacing and thinking.
The door opened, ringing the bell to announce his expected visitor. The policeman nodded to Kenny and motioned for him to come over.
“Mr Wilkinson? PC Caldwell. I believe we spoke last month about the death of Mr Chadwick across the road? I’m afraid we’ve got some bad news about your neighbour, Mr Zhao.” The officer proceeded to fill Kenny in on the details.
He hoped that Kenny would be able to shed some light on what had taken place, but Kenny had unfortunately been down in the cellar sorting out stock when the incident had occurred. There was nothing he could tell them. And about the Pike gang? Were they still active in the area? Not that he knew of.
Things had been quiet of late. The officer tried a few more questions but Kenny didn’t budge from his position. After ten minutes it was over. Kenny wished the officer luck in his investigations – Mr Zhao had been a good man – but knew that none of the other shopkeepers were going to be any more forthcoming. As did the officer. With a polite goodbye, he left and moved onto the next shop.
Kenny took a few deep breaths then went back to organising the newspapers. Tomorrow’s editions from the local presses would include poor Mr Zhao but not on the front page. Such killings got maybe a paragraph or two, possibly half a page if the shopowner was white and in one of the more upscale parts of town.
Not that Pike usually went too hard on those guys. He knew better. Kenny went to the counter and sat at his usual post behind the till. He caught a glimpse of himself in the convex mirror in the corner.
Even on that distorted screen, he could see that he was pale and sweating. He pulled a dirty handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his forehead and upper lip. It wouldn’t pay to let Celia see him like this. He settled into his seat and waited for the next customer. It was going to be a long day.
The sky had faded to a nondescript grey and a definite chill was building in the air when Celia finally arrived back at the shop. As usual, her arrival had the effect on Kenny that a pin has on a balloon.
He wasn’t just deflated; it was like all of the life escaped from him in one horrible burst. He loved his wife, he really did, but her greatest pleasure in life seemed to come from reminding Kenny about his many failings. Many, many failings.
Celia threw the door of the shop open and strutted in on her impressive red high heels. She brought with her the scent of expensive perfume and a wave of cold wintery air.
She looked around the shop, surveying it as if it were somewhere new and slightly unpleasant.
“And why is there a large police presence on our street tonight?” she asked. She started every conversation in media res, leaving Kenny with the distinct feeling that he was already lagging behind.
“I’m afraid there’s been another murder. Mr Zhao. It looks like it was Pike’s lot again.” Seeing that it was getting late and that any straggling customers were being put off by the uniforms outside, Kenny scuttled to the door, locked it and turned over the open/closed sign.
He went to his wife and offered to take her coat. She handed it to him as if he were a waiter and let him hang it up before she replied.
“A nice man, I’m sure. You weren’t foolish enough to have seen anything, were you?”
Kenny considered admitting that he’d heard every gruesome second of the attack but knew where that would lead. Celia’s lawyer brain would think of a thousand difficult and leading questions to ask, and he wouldn’t be allowed to sit down and have a cup of tea until every aspect of his story had been scrutinised and checked out.
It was for his own good, he knew that, but keeping quiet would just make this evening a little bit easier.
“I was in the basement sorting through the new stock. First I knew about it was when the police arrived with their questions.”
Celia raised her head so she could look down her nose at her husband. This was the pose she adopted when she didn’t believe him but had no proof that he was lying. She wasn’t a great lawyer. Her firm was one of the smaller ones in the city and most of their work came through criminals who couldn’t afford legal aid from anywhere else.
On that basis, she mainly viewed her clients as poor, stupid and guilty so spent much of her time trying to get them to confess in the hopes of a more lenient sentence. Her ambition was great though, and she fully believed that the case that would make her was just around the corner.
She had once confessed to Kenny a desire to be the woman to put Pike and his cronies behind bars. He had been slightly terrified of his wife ever since.
“Good. The last thing we need is to give Pike or the police a reason to be hanging around here, upsetting our business.” She stretched her long arms into the air and let out an airy yawn. She finally smiled at Kenny. “Get some food on. I need a shower.”
With Celia leading the way, she and Kenny went up the backstairs into the living area above the shop. It was surprisingly light and pleasant; a nod to Celia’s flair for interior design.
After a long day in the store, Kenny always felt refreshed just by going upstairs and encountering the familiar objects of his married life: the fresh flowers in the living room, the photos on the book shelves, the half-read newspaper that Celia left on the sofa.
It hadn’t always been this way. Kenny had grown up here when his parents had owned the store before their deaths. It had been dark and cold, with heavy curtains on all the windows and thick woodchip on the walls that Kenny and Celia had had to chisel off bit by bit.
When Kenny had inherited the store, he was only in his early twenties but had asked Celia, then his girlfriend, to move in straight away. She had been a secretary, trying to get into the legal profession through correspondence courses and night classes.
It had taken years but Kenny had supported her all the way through, working long hours and saving every penny he could for her. They had been happy though, and even when they were at their poorest Celia had found ways to make their home brighter.
It was only after she had completed her training and settled into her new job that she had got colder and more distant. But Kenny was still proud of all she had achieved.
And she had used her newfound wealth to make their home almost beautiful, knocking down one of the interior walls to open up the space and make it feel almost like a proper inner-city apartment for young professionals. Almost.
Kenny headed into the kitchen and went straight to the freezer. Too tired to cook from fresh, he was relieved to find a container of leftovers ready for nuking in the microwave. It looked like a stew of some kind but he wasn’t willing to commit himself any further than that.
He could hear the water clunking into gear in the bathroom as he set the table. He took a quick peek out of the window and was relieved to see that the police had gone.
There was nothing more they could do for Mr Zhao anyway. Kenny shuddered as he remembered the sounds he had heard earlier. He felt a surge of guilt too. Should he have intervened? Not necessarily during the attack but maybe earlier.
He had known full well that Mr Zhao was seriously behind on his payments to Pike.Their little Chinese grocers had been doing fine until a larger warehouse had sprung up just a mile down the road, offering cheaper alternatives and bulk buys.
Kenny could have offered to lend him a bit of money, enough to keep his head above water for a little longer. After all, Pike only got violent when the arrears were out of control. This train of thought was interrupted by the sudden absence of noise from the shower.
Kenny started, then went to check on their microwaving dinner. The bathroom door creaked open then shut again, and Kenny heard Celia’s wet feet softly padding along the floor into their bedroom.
She would be ready in just minutes, but would look as composed and neat as if she’d come straight out of a morning at a spa. Kenny, meanwhile, was struggling to tip the contents of the microwaveable dish onto the plates without depositing chunks of it all over the floor.
Celia made her reappearance dressed in a neat knee-length green dress just as a particularly large piece of brown meat slid off the edge of the table onto the linoleum floor, creating a Jackson Pollock effect in gravy.
A sigh escaped Celia’s lips as she sat down and waited for Kenny to complete his hamfisted attempt at being provider. If you took the murder out of the equation, it had been a thoroughly, disappointingly normal day.
The rest of the week passed without incident. Kenny was on tenterhooks for much of it, waiting for the police to reappear with more questions. They obviously didn’t consider it worth their while though, knowing full well that no more information was going to be forthcoming.
Behind Kenny’s fear of the police was his even greater dread of seeing Pike or one of his boys on the premises. Their monthly protection money wasn’t due for a little longer but it wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary for one of them to turn up, tattooed and leather-jacketed, to pass on a little reminder about the money and, of course, of the repercussions that come of not paying up on time.
Perhaps Mr Zhao’s as-yet-unburied body was considered reminder enough. As it was, Kenny felt himself breathing a little easier as the days went by, comfortable in the knowledge that he hadn’t exposed himself in any way to either the police or Pike’s lot, and that the protection money for the month was safely squirreled away, ready to be paid out when the time came.
Celia too seemed to have recognised that the initial threat was gone, treating Kenny almost kindly, as if grateful that he hadn’t said something stupid enough to get one or both of them into trouble. Business wasn’t bad either. Granted, Kenny stocked little of what Mr Zhao had sold, but he had inherited some of his neighbour’s customers as something of a local pride and loyalty issue. All in all, it was mainly Mr Zhao who had suffered through his death.
Kenny was thinking on these circumstances behind his till on the Saturday after the murder. He wasn’t supposed to be working; he normally took weekends off when he could so he could nominally spend time with Celia.
Neither of the couple particularly wanted that time together, generally getting on with their own projects or catching up with their own friends, but they could at least tell the world that they had weekends off together. A local lad, Shawn, manned the till on a Saturday night and had been at the store long enough to be trusted with locking up the cashbox and securing the premises at the end of business.
He wasn’t the sharpest tool, but had the desirable quality of being intelligent enough to run the shop efficiently without being smart enough to talk back, steal or demand a pay rise, ever. Unfortunately for Kenny, Shawn’s mother had been hit by a car three weeks ago and was still on a ventilator in hospital.
As such, Kenny had been forced to forego his typical Saturday at the pub with the boys and work upwards of sixteen hours per day over the weekend. All in all, he felt decidedly hard done by.
It was about fifteen minutes until closing on this particular Saturday. Trade had been brisk as always, with booze flying off the shelves into the hands of underage drinkers. But it was empty now, and Kenny was attempting to rouse himself enough to begin his usual closing up procedures.
In the quiet of the neon-lit shop, he felt quite peaceful, possibly from the numbing effects of having been there since seven that morning. Then chaos. Five men, huge in leather jackets and face masks, burst through the door and surrounded the shopkeeper, all shouting and shoving at once.
“Your money!” shouted one. “All of it, in this bag now!” The man thrust a black backpack at Kenny who was almost shaking too much to be able to take hold of it. He summoned enough self-possession to put some words together.
“But, last week, I paid. It was only last week. You know, you know I’m g-g-g-good for it.”
“Paid what, dickhead? Open your till and give us your money.” Kenny realised that this wasn’t Pike’s doing, that these weren’t his men looking for their protection money. In fact, this was exactly what that protection money was meant to prevent, as far as he could tell. Even in his panic, Kenny felt a morsel of pleasure at the thought that these men had no idea of what they’d just got themselves into.
“Pike. This is one of Pike’s shops. He’ll come after you, you know.” This said almost without hesitation, bolstered by the thought of the danger that his attackers would soon be facing.
“Fuck Pike!” responded one of the men, pushing Kenny towards the till. “We own this town now. You’d better get used to seeing us around.” He punched Kenny in the kidneys to fully drive his point home. Realising that he wasn’t going to be able to talk his way out of this situation, Kenny opened the till and retreated as far away as possible, allowing the men to pull out the cash and stuff it into their bags.
One of the others was going along the shelves, picking out the occasional item for keeping with all the consideration of an average customer.
It was an oddly disconnected experience for Kenny. He felt like he was under siege for ages but also that it had all happened far too quickly for him to respond in a more considered way. The men finished their work and headed towards the door without any more acknowledgement of the man they’d beaten and robbed. Kenny felt vaguely grateful for it.
Once the men had gone, definitely gone, Kenny went to the door and locked it, turning over the sign as usual. His heart was beating hard and he could barely hear anything above the pulse of his blood running through his veins. Random thoughts passed through his mind, from queries about why they had taken such a large number of mixed veg tins to a grateful realisation that things would have been much worse if Celia has been home rather than out with work colleagues.
The gratitude was short-lived, however. What the fuckity-fuck am I going to tell Celia, he asked himself. This wasn’t a matter he could take to the police, that was certain. Mr Zhao was no-longer-living proof of the dangers of getting on the wrong side of the local types.
It was with a shock that almost manifested itself as vomit that Kenny realised that he had to talk to Pike. This was what the protection money was for. And, unlike some of the gangs in other areas, Pike actually provided protection for this money. As far as he was concerned, he was a legitimate businessman.
The fact that a person could not choose whether or not to sign up to his particular business model was relatively incidental for him. You paid Pike for protection and Pike gave it. It was a power play too, a way to spell out that an area was his and that to mess with the people in that area was to mess with Pike himself.
The fact that the protection was there, however, did not mean that you ever wanted to call for it.
Kenny’s self-control was starting to reassert itself. He closed the still-open till, making a mental calculation about what had been taken, and tidied up the bit of mess left by the intruders. Keeping his speed down to that of only a mildly-panicked person, he moved up the backstairs to his own accommodation, seeking the relative security of his own space.
Sitting down in the kitchen, he played over his decision to see Pike. Instinctively, he knew that Celia would disapprove, not only because of the legal implications but because it would be legitimising all the money they’d lost to him over the years.
However, Celia frequently followed the classic lawyer technique of not asking about things she didn’t want to know. It had been her response to the whole Pike situation from the start: ask enough to ensure Kenny wasn’t getting them into anything they couldn’t handle, but keep the details vague enough to negate her own sense of responsibility.
It was lawyer double-speak, being aware of a highly illegal situation but also securely separate from it. Kenny admired this quality but felt that having to pursue it as something of a job requirement was probably what made her such a cold wife.
Anyway, he had a strong feeling that Celia would be happy to have this particular situation resolved without having to hear one solitary peep about it.
So he was going to have to act quickly.
Kenny glanced at his watch, forcing his hand to stop shaking as he did so. It was approaching midnight but there was every possibility that Celia would be out until two or three in the morning. When she let her hair down, she did it with no little enthusiasm. Even better for Kenny, he knew exactly where Pike would be at this time on a Saturday night. He owned a gentleman’s club not far from Kenny’s shop and he was certainly a hands-on boss. In all senses of the word.
As Kenny pulled on his coat, he spent a few seconds legitimately questioning his own sanity. Pike was not a man to approach lightly, not even when the grievance was a fair one. However, it was information that Pike would be grateful to know, surely, as any new gang on the territory was likely to be trouble for his men.
Kenny left the shop feeling more secure in his plan, and quickly walked the orange-lit streets towards the club.
It was a cold night but that didn’t stop the streets from being full of drunken women in scandalously short skirts, often propped-up against t-shirted young men still drinking as they stumbled home. Kenny felt pretty sure that most places were like this on a Saturday night but it didn’t make the sight any more attractive.
Every kebab shop was packed to the rafters and it took quick thinking to sidestep some of the puddles of vomit dripping from the kerb into the gutter. Suffice it to say, Pike’s protection policies didn’t stretch to anti-social behaviour. The police had to tackle that on their own.
Much to Kenny’s relief, the street towards Pike’s club was quieter. It wasn’t the kind of place that just anyone could go to. It was for a higher class of person, the sort of club where rich businessmen take their foreign clients to celebrate sealing a vital deal. As far as they were concerned, Pike was just a businessman like themselves.
The darker side of his work was for the eyes of the lower orders only. The cars Kenny passed got gradually more expensive, with the entrance to the club marked by the newest of models. The doorway and signage was dark and discreet, and the two burly men on the door were the only obvious sign of the type of club inside.
As he approached the smaller of the two men (probably all of 6’1”, a positive minnow of a man compared to his pal), Kenny realised his error. He was still dressed as a local shopkeeper, and his unkempt hair combined poorly with a complexion paled through stress. Never in a million years would these men let him into the club.
He couldn’t even bribe them, his wallet nestled neatly on his bedside table. Unfortunately for Kenny, he had continued to walk up to the bouncer even as he realised his error and some kind of conversation was going to have to take place.
“I need to see Pike,” he said as matter-of-factly as he could. He hoped that he could use his sense of futility to masquerade as brave. It seemed to work.
“I have information for him.” The bouncer continued to look at Kenny with a totally expressionless face. It was apparent that Kenny was going to have to take responsibility for carrying the conversation.
“About a gang,” he continued eventually, the pressure of the silence too heavy.
The bouncer’s expressionless face cracked, giving way to a hostile warning look. “Mr Pike is a legitimate businessman. Any issues about gangs should be taken to the police, ain’t that right, Cyril?”
Cyril brought all 300 pounds of flesh right up to Kenny to confirm his friend’s assertion. Kenny tried his hardest not to back away but he couldn’t avoid cowering at the sight of the big man.
“I believe my friend is correct, sir,” said Cyril in that strangely formal way some people talk right before they beat the crap out of you. “In fact, our employer is very supportive of the police and their endeavours with regards to and involving certain gang issues.”
Kenny felt a certain grammatical confusion here, but felt it wasn’t the time to bring it up.
“I know that Mr Pike is a legitimate businessman. I, I, I wasn’t try to suggest otherwise. But I have heard rumours that Mr Pike’s legitimate businesses,” he paused here, letting the emphasis on the word hit home, “his legitimate businesses may be targeted by these gangs, and I feel that it might be in Mr Pike’s best interest to hear what I have to say.”
Kenny pulled himself up to the full extent of his unimpressive height and tried not to whimper as Cyril eyed him up and down discouragingly.
“Some people might hear that as a threat,” said Cyril’s buddy as all of Kenny’s remaining hope drained away. “But you're no danger. Let him in, bruv.” The formal approach faded out completely at the end and, remarkably, the door was opened for Kenny and he was allowed through.
He could barely believe his luck. Cyril followed him a step or two behind, seemingly to ensure that Kenny didn’t get distracted from his task.
It was easy to see why Kenny would get distracted. He was in a brave new world of flesh, feathers and filth. Waitresses in bikinis brought drinks on trays to tables of beered-up men who took full advantage of the opportunity to leer and grope.
Along the wall stood rows of chairs, each occupied by a well-paying lap dance customer with a semi-naked temptress writhing on top of him. But it was the stages that drew Kenny’s attention.
There were three round stages making a triangle in the middle of the room. Each had a pole in the centre and each pole had a goddess wrapped around it in the final stages of undress. Kenny was as impressed by the women’s flexibility as their beauty – he was pretty sure his wife had never been able to get her legs up that far – but Cyril was quick to drag him back to reality. He dug a knuckle into the small of Kenny’s back and forced him upstairs.
As soon as Kenny started to ascend the inevitable spiral staircase, the less enticing aspects of the club became harder to ignore. The banister was sticky with substances that he would rather not think about and the loutishness of the clientèle was painful to watch. On the plus side, Cyril decided he didn’t need to accompany Kenny any further and left the shopkeeper to carry on unchaperoned.
At the top of the stairs were two distinct areas: one was a VIP balcony section with a bird’s eye view of the three stages below. It was empty for now, although the debris of glass, feather boas and discarded peephole bras suggested that the evening’s festivities had been quite something. It was the other section that interested Kenny.
There were chest-high walls blocking it off and another burly bodyguard was guarding the one small entrance. This bodyguard could have carried one Cyril under each arm.
“Name?” He’d obviously been to the same charm school as his colleagues. Kenny responded in a voice that he hoped sounded assertive enough not to get him laughed at but not so authoritative that he would be considered a threat. Not that that was likely.
The lack of movement on the man’s face suggested that Kenny wasn’t even worth noticing, so he tried again. “I’m here to see Pike.” Momentary pause. “Cyril said it was ok.” It was an ‘Open, Sesame’ moment, as the man’s face broke into a wide smile and he moved aside to let Kenny through.
“Come right through, Mr Wilkinson.” Kenny was ushered into the enclosure that served as Pike’s office. To the man’s credit, he kept a tidy desk, and there was just the right amount of office furniture to suggest that legitimate business work went on here. It was almost anticlimactic for Kenny. He had half expected Pike to conduct business with a cigarette in one hand, a woman in the other, and a bottle of expensive alcohol strategically placed nearby.
Instead, the man behind the desk was quite neatly put together, wearing a crisp suit and sporting a greased back but sensible haircut. It was true though that, beneath this neatness, there was still an indefinable sense of something not being quite right, a hint that what was going on wasn’t quite as legit as it might first seem.
Perhaps it’s the fear that I reek of right now, thought Kenny. Although it can’t help that this is a strip club and I was hustled by goons on my way in.
In what was a stroke of good fortune for Kenny, these speculations all took place a lot quicker than it took to write about them. There was a moment of mutual contemplation as both Kenny and Pike sized each other up.
Neither man seemed too troubled by what they saw. Although obviously at the disadvantage, Kenny gained confidence from the fact that Pike would never be so stupid as to try something on his own doorstep. Right here, right now, Kenny was probably safer from the gangster than he had ever been in his shop, and yet this was the first time he had ever come face to face with the man. Determined to get what he could out of the situation, Kenny bit the bullet and spoke first.
“Good evening, Mr Pike,” he began. “My name is Kenny Wilkinson. I own one of the shops down on – “
“I know of your shop, Kenny. A tragedy, what happened to your neighbour, eh? I’m not a fan of chinks meself, but I heard that he was alright, considering.”
So this was the criminal mastermind.
“We never had any problems with him. Unlike the men who came around to my shop this evening...” Kenny deliberately let this hang, baiting Pike to offer something up.
“You had some unexpected visitors, yes? Not my boys, I can assure you.” Pike leant forward onto the table and peered at Kenny in a way that made him feel distinctly uncomfortable. He realised that he was still standing and began to feel self-conscious about the way he was holding himself. He crossed and uncrossed his hands, then let them hang loosely by his side.
“Oh no, no. That’s why I came to speak to you.” Kenny’s hands once more started flapping in front of him and, desperate to maintain some kind of appearance of calm, he grabbed the chair in front of Pike’s desk and sat down on it, bum on hands.
If this startled or annoyed his host, Pike gave no outward sign of it. Kenny felt encouraged and leant forward confidentially towards Pike, keen to get out what he needed to say. “You see, Mr Pike, I’ve always paid my protection money on time and you’ve never had any problems from me. I’ve been a good...client.” Much as it hurt, he felt it was imperative that he acted like his relationship with Pike was a voluntary one, something he had willingly entered into and something from which he could withdraw if he had to.
“I have to agree. My boys have always found you to be compliant, yes?”
“Well, thank you. Well, ok. Well.” It was crunch time, and Kenny felt like he’d got a mouth full of cotton buds. “I need to call upon your protective services.”
For the second time since Kenny had been ushered in, Pike gave him a scrutinising onceover. Kenny, in a feat of self-control that would amaze him later on, managed to maintain eye contact as Pike peered into his face.
Whatever the man saw, it was sufficient to draw a positive response.
“What exactly is it that you require protecting from?” Kenny described the incidents of the evening, making sure he mentioned their disrespect for Pike’s crew without implicating himself in this feeling at all. P
ike’s face grew darker the more Kenny told, and the shopkeeper hoped to God that it wasn’t going to be him that bore the brunt of the coming storm. Pike asked a few more questions but quickly realised that Kenny had told all he knew.
His manner relaxed as he drew himself out of his chair and extended a hand towards Kenny. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Mr Wilkinson. I’m sure it’s enough for me to say that I will be looking into this matter with the very greatest of interest, yes?” Kenny found himself thinking that it was hard to be intimidated by a man who was such an irritating question-talker, but nodded anyway.
“In the meantime, let me offer you a complementary drink, and perhaps you would like to meet the charming Chantelle...” Which is why Kenny went home stinking of cheap champagne and cheaper perfume.Which helps to explain why Celia, who had inconveniently arrived back to the flat while Kenny was out, had screamed at Kenny for a full fifteen minutes about all the ways that he failed as a businessman, a husband and, indeed, a man.
Which goes some way towards explaining, although not justifying, why Kenny, for the first and only time in his life, raised his hand to his wife.
Which certainly explains why Celia had packed her bag and was out of the door before dawn had risen over the shop.