Chapter 6: Uh-oh
Almost as soon as he had legged it far enough away from Marcella the Pirate to stop running and take stock, The Pan’s doubts began to gnaw at him. No, thinking about it sensibly, they’d started to gnaw at him way before that, he’d been too surprised and scared—not to mention confused—to make sense of them. He stood, still, in the darkness, to reflect.
‘Uh-oh.’ he muttered to himself.
Had he done the wrong thing? There’d been no name on the envelope, which was not unusual, or at least, not in situations where The Pan would be putting the message into the actual hand of the recipient, but even so, Marcella the Pirate? Would Big Merv be addressing correspondence to such a small-time operator?
He tried to imagine what Big Merv would have said if he’d opened the letter first, to check. Well yes, that wouldn’t have gone well. Big Merv wasn’t there though. He was somewhere snug and warm in the dry. Yes. And it might have been sensible to open the letter to check. Had The Pan done so, his boss wouldn’t ever have known. Except Big Merv had a very uncanny habit of finding out about things that it should, by all rights, be impossible for him to know.
‘OK what are the choices here?’ The Pan asked himself. To his dismay, the voice of his virtual father spoke up.
When The Pan needed to think something through, he would sometimes imagine he was discussing it with his mother or father, back in the days when they were still alive, before everything went wrong. He called this ‘virtual parenting’.
If you weren’t sure, you should have kept the letter and double-checked with Big Merv, said his virtual father.
‘If I hadn’t delivered it, Big Merv would have killed me.’
Don’t be a fool! If he hasn’t killed you yet, he’s not about to start now.
‘That’s easy for you to say, you don’t have to face him. As the man on the ground, I can assure you that it looks a very real possibility most of the time.’
Do shut up and listen! Which will anger him most? Your having the diligence to check, or his letter falling into the hands of a rival gangster?
The Pan’s stomach turned over.
‘Smeck! I’ve got to get it back! Now.’
‘Sorry. But when you put it like that …’ The Pan muttered.
If the letter was really for Marcella, The Pan reasoned, it wasn’t as if it would be difficult to find her. She might be small-time, but round Tarbut she was definitely a big noise. Marcella had banned The Pan from ever setting foot on her patch again. So if he wanted to find her all he’d have to do was go down there and she’d appear within minutes, plus assorted gang members, ready to smash his face in. He could go to Tarbut, hand it over the minute she and her goons arrived, and then leg it before anyone thumped him.
Now she already had the wretched thing, he was beginning to suspect that she wasn’t the intended recipient and getting it back off her, so he could check, was going to be the nightmare from hell.
You’ll have to go down to Tarbut and ask her for it back, said his virtual father.
‘Yeh right. That’s not going to work. She banned me.’
The voice of his virtual mother cut in.
You know I would never countenance stealing but, perhaps if it’s not for her, you could wait until she’s gone to bed and take it from her desk.
‘Are you nuts?’ muttered The Pan ‘How can I do that? One; she is not the kind of person who has a desk, two; I don’t even know where she lives.’
Did Marcella even have a house, or a lair, or whatever it was small-time crime bosses had? The Pan racked his brains. He thought he’d heard something about a boxing gym but he couldn’t be sure. He doubted she owned a house in The Planes, like Big Merv but the point was, she had to actually live somewhere, and it wouldn’t necessarily be in Tarbut.
‘Arnold’s bogies! Now what?’ grumbled The Pan to himself.
Except he already knew. He had to intercept Marcella within the next few minutes and get the letter back before she read it.
He belted back the way he had come; back up the alley in the direction Marcella and her group of thugs had taken.
OK so it’s straightforward, he thought as he ran, I’ll catch up with her, pretend to bump into her and nick it back. Then he could read it, and if it really was intended for her he could go find her, hand it over and tell her that when he bumped into her by mistake she’d dropped it.
What am I doing?
If The Pan could have put his head in his hands as he ran he would have done, because even for one of his plans—and he had to concede that pretty much all of them were bad—this one sucked comprehensively.
Arnold’s socks! This may just the worst idea I’ve ever had!
Luckily, it took very little time to retrace his steps and reach the doorway where he’d waited to deliver the letter. There was no sign of Marcella, but since she hadn’t followed him, there was only one other direction she and her cronies could have taken. Excellent.
He ran on and exited the alley onto a larger street. Still no sign of Marcella. That wasn’t surprising, she was fit and energetic and walked fast. She’d not be far away though. The street was long, straight and, thank, The Prophet! It was lit and the rain had stopped. He took a moment to check thoroughly in each direction, looking and listening. He was quicker about this than he might have been because he had eyes in the back of his head and could check both ways at once. The eyes had appeared, pretty much overnight when he was sixteen, just before he’d been added to the government blacklist and his existence had become illegal. He never told anyone about them, mostly in case he was branded a freak, but also because their presence gave him a small advantage that he might not have enjoyed had anyone else known. As a man who existed in a world where the slimmest advantage could mean staying alive, keeping his strange deformity secret was definitely the best plan.
The street was deserted. All was quiet. Or was it? No. Wait! Distant voices echoed off the buildings and yes, there was a bunch of beings a long way ahead of him, silhouetted under the street lights. They were moving quickly but with that rolling gangsta gait that suggested they were double-hard and therefore extremely bad news. Bingo! That would be Marcella and her cronies then.
‘Thank you, Arnold!’ he whispered and set off after them.
The Pan knew that, as gangsters, they would be savvy enough to spot someone following and that he would have to be extremely careful. Noting the direction in which they were headed, he calculated that, if he hurried, he could do three sides of a block and run round the last corner straight into them. The added plus to this was that there was no risk that they would realise they were being followed because he wouldn’t actually be following them.
Phew. He might yet avert this disaster. If he was quick. He walked a brisk few yards ducked into a side street and started running. As he belted over the cobbles as fast as he could run, The Pan imagined Marcella and her companions as dot moving slowly across a map of the city. Arnold! These were incredibly long streets and he couldn’t run fast enough. He’d have to take a more direct route. He slowed up a moment. He didn’t really have the time to spare but it was worth taking a second or two to find a good spot to climb.
There it was! The perfect combination of architectural features for an easy ascent. He started upwards. With the aid of a handy drain pipe and the pediments and sills of the building’s windows, not to mention a useful bit of coving between the middle two floors, he climbed to the roof tops as fast as he could. Grabbing the guttering that ran just below the roof, he pushed off the pediment over the highest window with all his strength, and using the upward momentum, flipped himself up onto the roof.
Don’t even think about how tired your arms are! Keep running, he thought as he leapt to his feet and sprinted up the steep roof. He put a hand on the nearest ridge tile and vaulted over the top, making sure he took a brief look to note the lie of the roofs ahead of him as he did so.
His breath coming in gasps and his heart pounding, as much from fear as the exertion, he slithered down the other side towards the edge of the roof, and the long drop onto the cobbles below. He hated doing this sort of thing at speed but there was nothing for it. The slates were slippery and there was very little grip. The trick was to stay on his feet. He quickened his step, because in this situation the only way to keep any sort of balance was to speed up. He scrabbled and slid towards the bottom of the roof, trying to keep his footing, and also waiting until the last possible moment before he made the jump to the roof top opposite. He must narrow the gap to be crossed as much as he could.
Wait for it … wait for it … Arnold’s bottom! How he hated this! He leapt. Flying over the void and landing with a clatter on the tiles of the roof opposite.
The landing slowed him up but not so much that he couldn’t repeat the manoeuvre. He powered over three more roofs like this, without stopping to check what was on the other side of each one, trying not to think about the stupidity of that or what he was doing.
That’s right, this is nothing more than extreme hurdling. Not hard-core! Just parkour, he repeated, like a mantra, over and over again in his head. The fourth roof lay ahead. It was a narrower building so there was less of a climb, which was good but at the same time, a shorter ascent to slow him down, which was bad. He leapt across this final street but stumbled as he landed. The momentum carried him onwards and he fell forward flipping over the ridge and—
‘Smecking Arnold! No!’
Arms and legs flailing, he managed to grab the ridge tile. He stopped with a jolt so sudden it dislodged his hold but he was quick enough to bring his other arm up and grab the ridge of the roof with that. He stopped, hanging by the fingertips of one hand, on his stomach, his face pressed into the tiles.
Shaking and sweaty he took a few deep breaths to compose himself and then let himself slide slowly down the roof until he could grab the edge and swing himself over it. Hanging onto the gutter for a moment or two to take stock, he noticed a metal fire escape below.
Still hanging he moved hand-over-hand along the gutter until he was above he metal grated surface of the fire escape. Then dropped down, landing, with a metallic bong, in a crouch.
Woah. The adrenaline in his system was making his arms and legs shake and his heart was beating so fast he felt as if it was going to bump its way out of his chest.
Excellent. Still alive then.
Yeh, but if he didn’t get that letter back from Marcella the Pirate, he might not be for long.
Right. No time to lose.
He climbed over the side of the metal platform and lowered himself down onto the one beneath, continuing this way until he dropped from the last and landed in a crouch, on the street, five storeys below. Jelly legged or not, he was up and running instantly, his elastic sided pointy boots clattering on the cobbled surface. In his mind’s eye, he could still visualise the map. He sprinted to the end of the street. If he was right, Marcella would be reaching the point where he could bump into her right about … he rounded the corner and ran slap bang into her. Ah yes. Now.
Luckily she grabbed him, manhandling him out of the way. The subsequent tussle allowed him more time to dip her inside jacket pocket for correspondence. In the chaos as he staggered away from her it was easy enough to hide the letter he’d stolen without her or her posse noticing.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he panted as he straightened up and began to back away.
Marcella walked towards him.
‘If you want to live to deliver any more messages you’d better apologise to me. Now.’
He just did, didn’t he? Never mind.
‘I’m really, really sorry,’ The Pan repeated, breathlessly as he back-pedalled.
‘You will be if you ever do that again,’ she snarled.
He could see the thugs around her were waiting, at the ready, for a word from her to attack. To his utter relief she didn’t give them the signal.
Instead she stopped and pointed at him.
‘If I didn’t have better things to do I’d slit your throat for that piece of disrespect.’
‘I meant no disrespect. I—’
‘Save it for someone who gives a smeck, pond life. Now get lost before I change my mind.’
She turned and strode away from him up the street, her thugs following suit.