Part two, Halle.
Halle pedalled energetically up the drive to Chestnut Lodge, enjoying how the dancing gravel stung her thighs under her skirt. Chic sat at the top of the slope smoking a woodbine, beaming; she was the nearest thing he had to a friend. She beamed back. She thought Chic was great, he told amazing stories.
She’d ask often to hear the tale of that night in Lapland, when they’d been surrounded by the SS and how he’d fought off an entire platoon, thanks to the alien belt he’d put on and the power it had given him.
“Bowled them over like skittles,” he’d told her grimly. She enjoyed especially the bit where he’d punched one soldier “thirty feet into the air and left him dangling from the branches of a tree like a forgotten kite, his life spilling onto the fresh snow in a long red tail.” He had such an imagination. She liked the war stories better than the masked crime fighter ones, they were a bit silly. She’d tried to get him to write it all down once, but he’d told her that there was an act of parliament banning him from writing an autobiography. Old people were so funny.
She’d wanted to join the army, the year before, when she’d left school, but her boyfriend, Bailey, had pointed to Afghanistan and Iraq, he’d said there were no honest wars any more, and she’d seen his point. Still, she thought, the opportunities for heroism were poor in the bum wiping industry, and she wished that Chic’s stories were true.
After the war, their unit was dissolved, peacetime Britain had no place for their brand of .38 calibre diplomacy. Like a lot of ex servicemen, they had both joined the police.
Ruby Catarrattis was the detective inspector directly over them. She hated having ex squaddies in her team. She’d believed that modern policing was about brains, not brawn, and DC Champion was about the brawniest creature she had ever met. He had been like an overgrown, untrained, puppy. There had been times when she’d honestly thought that he was going to jump on her and lick her.
Quite the opposite of his friend, Alexander, who had been sophisticated and respectful, and handsome. No one could ever say that of Chic. But she’d never met a more genuine man, or one more passionate, and he had adored her, from the word go. She’d been like a ruby herself he thought, bright and sharp and precious.
The two men had joined the police at a time when London’s criminals were evolving into something nastier than their pre war ascendants. More organised and more dangerous, the new gangland bosses threw out the rulebooks of the old order. Chic and Ruby saw the death and misery the guns and drugs had brought, and had fought back against the rising tide.
Gourko, on the other hand, had admired this new breed of celebrity gangster. He’d respected their ruthlessness and envied their lifestyles, and he transferred to the flying squad, to put himself in a position where he could become a part of this new felonious royalty.
Halle been told to have a word with Chic about his behaviour, he’d been shouting at poor old Albert again. He was confusing him with someone from one of his stories, called Gorky, or something. If it hadn’t been so sad it would have been funny, a great big bloke like Chic, afraid of a puny little man like that.
The conversation wasn’t going they way she’d hoped.
“I am not going to snoop around another resident’s room for you Chic,” she insisted again, “and that’s that!”
“Just see if its there,” he carried on, “I’m not asking you to do anything, just look. Please?” Most of the residents that had dementia, arrived at the home like that. She had only known them as shells and remnants of their old selves.
She’d never seen it actually happening to someone, it was dreadful.
The odd thing was, that there actually was a military looking attaché case, just like the one Chic described, in Albert’s wardrobe, but old people always had odd stuff like that in their wardrobes, didn’t they?
Chic knew the belt was there though, he’d have to find another way.
Ruby read the headline again, ‘Masked Hero Rescues Orphans from Inferno.‘ There had been a spate, in America, of people dressing up in undignified costumes and fighting crime. The last thing she needed was some clown pulling the same stunt on her patch. The desk sergeant chucked another paper onto the pile. This one read, ‘Costumed Avenger Makes Streets Safe Again.‘
“God almighty!” She sighed.
“They’re saying he can fly in the Mail,” he told her, grinning widely but mirthlessly. “To be honest Ma’am, most of the boys think he’s pretty neat.”
Well, she didn’t. She thought the Bulldog, as he called himself, was a dangerous lunatic.
“We’re supposed to be putting men in prison not hospital,” she pointed out, “remember those little things we used to have, called trials?”
“Gets them off the streets,” said the sergeant, chewing something that hadn’t been in his mouth a moment before. “I had two last week just begging to be banged up: that scared of him they were.”
Several of the residents were due to attend the local hospital. Chic watched as one by one they were parked, to wait for the transport, in a neat row at the top of the gravel slope that led down to the busy main road. Finally New Girl wheeled out the man he was waiting for. What’s more, she only applied one of his brakes.
‘Should be fired,’ smiled Chic to himself as he flipped the brake off and, with a gentle elbow, nudged his foe onto a traffic bound trajectory. ‘Let’s see him keep up the act with a number thirty-seven bearing down on him,’ he thought.
After a cautious start, the chair began to pick up speed quickly, and within a few feet it was going at a slow jog, its occupant oblivious to his chair’s sudden bid for freedom.
First to notice was New Girl. She let out a squeak of horror and set off in hot, chubby pursuit, wheezing inaudible pleas for assistance as she went, clutching at herself to keep her phone and change from springing from her inadequate pockets and her jewellery from slapping her around the face. Her large breasts, taken by surprise, bounced angrily in opposition to her momentum, fighting her and each other. She fought back, bravely.
The path steepened slightly and the chair, as though aware of its pursuer, picked up the pace and broke into a trot. Its wheels were small and thick, not designed for speed and it began to bounce and rock, playfully almost, over the white gravel.
‘Let’s see who’s helpless now,’ thought Chic, lighting a cigarette. Arms could be seen either side of the cantering metal chair, flailing lifelessly like a rag doll in a tumble dryer. ‘Any second now,’ thought Chic. Two other girls joined in the chase, but with little hope. Any. Second. Now.
“What good is a confession from a man who’s had his hand plunged into a chip pan and been scared half to death by some deranged nut case in pantomime costume?” Ruby had complained to Chic over supper. It tore him up.
“He’s on your side love.”
“Without rules, he’s no better than they are Chic, you should know that.” He ached to tell her that it was him.
Whatever happened to those simple times?
When he’d been a child he’d stood in a ring and punched another boy in the face until he couldn’t stand up any more.
Everyone had cheered and he’d been given a big silver cup.
His dad had tussled his red hair and said “Champion by name; Champion by nature!” Whatever happened?
“Sorry darling, I’m not cross with you,” his wife was saying, “its just that costumed prick makes me so angry. God! What kind of childhood must he have had?”
The chair lurched, continuing down the drive like a drunken robot antelope, balancing skilfully on two wheels for a moment, hurtling towards the busy road.
‘He’s cutting it mighty fine,’ thought Chic with reluctant respect, fully expecting the man to leap from the chair at any second.
And then the macabre spectacle reached its gruesome climax.
A wheel hit a particularly large piece of gravel, and the chair sprung several feet into the air, and toppled forwards, crashing down, with a skidding crunch that ended at the feet of a woman who had been walking her dog and who then ran around in little circles calling for an ambulance as though there were one within earshot. Bloodied and broken, mouth and nose full of driveway, the man under the wheelchair closed his eyes.
The dog, eager to share in the excitement, ran around, barking enthusiastically. First at the man lying in the reddening gravel, and then at the three panting women in blue uniforms, holding in their heaving chests, bent double, hands on knees. This was great, thought the dog, relieving himself on the man.
Gourko had known all along who the masked man was, he’d encouraged him. He’d hoped to manipulate the great lump to his own ends. The fear that the Bulldog had created amongst the underworld had been very useful to the scheming cop. Chic, though had proved too principled, and too dumb.
“I don’t care about ‘the grander scheme’ Alexander,” he’d told him, “a heroin dealer is a heroin dealer.” They looked down, the floor of the public toilet was awash with blood, a panicked gurgling emanated from behind a cubicle door, “He needed teaching a lesson,” Chic explained. He had flushed the brown powder down the pan, no idea that his friend had bankrolled the deal, then he’d angrily smashed the toilet bowl to pieces with the dealer’s face. He would have to go, thought Gourko. He’d become a liability.
It took just a single phone call.
Chic looked up at Halle’s disappointed face. He was defeated, he knew that. It was over and he’d lost. His eyes stung with failure.
“Its a bit late to be sorry now,” she said coldly but hating seeing him so distraught. “They’re gonna move you to another home Chic.”
“I know,” he said, not looking at her, “The CO told me,” he meant the matron.
“It won’t be a nice home Chic, it’ll be a home-” she was going to say ‘for people like you.’ The thought of him in a psycho-geriatric ward filled her with sadness “I’ll come and see you.” she said quietly.
“He’ll come for me now,” he told her, “tonight probably.” What was he on about? “Apotoxin.” he explained.
“Apotoxin 4869,” it was Gourko’s favourite poison, untraceable and irreversible. It attacked the brain’s fear centres. The victim died in terror, the expression frozen on their face forever. She’d never seen Chic look so scared before, it unsettled her.
Ruby found it, just as the call had told her, in a military attaché case under the floorboards in their flat. The Bulldog’s costume, and some daft looking belt. It could’ve been a plant of course, but then there were the photos. There was no mistaking her husband’s brick wall features. She sat down. She didn’t move for a long time.
Halle hadn’t wanted to take the buckle, but he’d almost begged her. It was encouraging his fantasies, she realised, but he’d been close to tears. She’d made things worse though, hadn’t she? He’d wanted her to throw it in the river or bury it somewhere, anything to stop him getting hold of it. She wouldn’t, she decided, she would give it back, say sorry, explain, in the morning.
But she didn’t, because in the morning, Chic Champion was dead.
She stands, tiptoed, on the very top of the mast, hundreds of feet up, and looks out across the city. There’s a scream of terror in the distance, a mugging perhaps, or worse. ’Not tonight,’ she thinks, and leaps into the darkness.
Part one, Chic.
“You should grow it” said one of the two care assistants getting him up, stroking his thick red crew cut admiringly. “Look there’s not one grey hair, you’re amazing Mr Champion.” She peered a little closer, “Not a single one!” and rummaged, impressed, in his scalp. It was all far too personal if you asked him.
She was new, had only worked at the home for a few days, but they all did it: pawed away at you, grooming and petting. Chic didn’t say anything, she was just being kind, after all.
“And all your own teeth! You’re a miracle!” she squealed, giving his cheek a little pinch.
Chic slid into a long, magnolia corridor. He pulled a chain from round his neck and looked at the object on the end. A belt buckle of a silvery alloy, about two inches round. It had an intricate diagram of a star system inscribed on the front. It hadn’t been worth it in the end, he thought, he’d lost everything. He slid it back under his vest.
His old biceps pumped the wheels rhythmically as he glided down the row of obsolete lives, marked off by identical blue doors, wheelchair groaning under his massive frame.
Chic had always been enormous. A born pugilist, he was boxing at middleweight by the time he was just eleven, and over the following years, a growing collection of trophies had crowded a little mantelpiece in Canning Town. The collection had stopped growing in 1940, when, along with the mantelpiece, the house and his parents, it was blown to smithereens by a German bomb. He’d signed up for the army the day after their funeral. And a year later he’d scrambled up a beach in Normandy, to kill boys his own age.
At the other end of the corridor was the day room, the aneurytic heart of Chestnut Lodge. Just outside was a whiteboard and on it was written the day and date in a green marker ink, to help orientate those residents that could, if not anchored properly, drift, lost in the past. No one had changed it in months.
Inside the day room an old lady clung to the straps of the crane-like hoist that was whirring her from her wheelchair to the high backed, wipe clean, plastic armchair that she would spend the rest of her day in. Terror and humiliation competed for dominance in her mind.
“Help me dear! I’m falling! Everyone can see my knickers! Help me dear!” Every day this process frightened and embarrassed her and every day as she panicked and blushed, knickers and limbs flapping like a dying pink pterodactyl in a nappy, two care assistants would try to calm and reassure her.
“You’re OK Pearl.”
”Don’t worry, no one’s looking.”
“Try to keep still sweetheart, we’re nearly there.”
Across from Pearl sat Albert Goodman, leant over to one side and slowly slipping down inside a grey NHS wheelchair. A bored fly wandered aimlessly across his forehead, pausing now and then to lick tackily at his scalp, not liking what it found.
As far as Chic was concerned his name was not Albert Goodman at all, but Alexander Gourko. An evil genius and cold blooded killer. His arch nemesis. Chic didn’t believe, for a second, that he was the helpless, dribbling fool sat across the way, quietly pissing himself. It was all a clever act, right down to the stupid lopsided expression. Chic believed that he had come for the buckle around his neck. Without it, the belt was useless.
A glistening column of dribble descended like a hesitant abseiler from his enemy’s lip.
They had been comrades once, fought alongside each other and led men into battle together. They had both been recruited, during the war, into an elite force called the Special Operations Executive: a clandestine outfit, charged by Churchill to set Europe ablaze and known as the Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare.
It was Chic’s strength, courage and loyalty that had brought him to their attention. Alexander, on the other hand, had been a scarecrow of a man, but had shown a composure and a ruthless tenacity that was invaluable in the chaos and exhaustion of battle. Chic had never met anyone so unsqueamish, he had mistaken this, at the time, for strength.
Chic glared at his adversary across the day room as another column of spittle began its descent onto the purée stained paper bib of evil.
“You bastard!” he screamed suddenly. “You murdering bastard! Come on, get up, you bloody charlatan! Get up!” He started to wheel himself slowly but threateningly towards his foe. One of the girls eyes rolled as if to say ‘here we go again.’ She took hold of the arms of his chair and began to push him slowly backwards towards the door, smiling.
“Come on Mr Champion, let’s not have any of that today.”
“He killed, he killed my-”
“I know, I know,” she cooed, not letting him finish, not interested. “Let’s see what’s going on in the TV lounge shall we?” she suggested kindly.
“Bastard!” he shouted over the carer’s sizeable, blue-checked backside as they exited. “Bastard!”
Six months before the end of the war, the two men had been sent on a mission high above the Arctic Circle to investigate ghostly sightings in the night skies over the Haldefjäll mountains. Something had come down, apparently intact, by an icy river. They were to identify its origins, no doubt military, and neutralise it.
As they approached, the scorched ground crackled under their feet like volcanic glass. What they found there had been a craft of some kind but, destroyed by the crash and cremating in its own fuels, more than that had been impossible to say. The pilot too, melted into the seat and controls, had been consumed beyond recognition.
Wrapped around this roasted corpse had been the belt, somehow untouched by the fire and soot, and cold to the touch despite the hissing and crackling of the carcass it embraced. And, lying apart but similarly unscathed, they’d found the small round buckle.
Chic fastened the two ends together with it. He could have sworn that it tingled and made his fist feel like a rock. Like he could punch out a cart horse, he’d said. He’d looked over at the thing in the seat. It barely looked human. But what else could it be? he’d thought.
Gourko knew. He’d looked up at the Milky Way, a dazzling scar of light ripping open the throat of the sky from ear to ear, and laughed. Even in space, he thought, they were fighting wars. It made him feel good, part of something. “Come on,” he’d suggested cheerfully, cracking his knuckles “let’s round up some peasants, find out what they saw.” But before they could set off on their grizzly fact-finder, the spit of a rifle shot drew their attention outside. Gourko peeked through a smoking hole in the wreckage, “Shit!” he muttered, a platoon of the Schutzstaffel had them surrounded.