The bar was full, customers made their way through the doors enjoying the time spent together, and the drinks, the tills were ringing. The music from the jukebox melted into the conversations and the gusts of laughter that blew through the room. Tom watched his clients enjoy the evening, and enjoyed it even more than they did. The kitchen sent out food orders and the bar staff filled glasses. Smiles thrown from one side of the bar to the other, waiters carrying trays and laughter to the tables.

His bar manager Lyn called him over to settle a complaint. The food was late, and the customer was unhappy. Tom smiled and smoothed the ruffled feathers. A discount was offered and accepted. Tom nodded to Lyn, and passed the receipt to her.

Leaving the hustle of the bar behind, he slipped into his office and sat down; sipping from a coffee cup and sorting through invoices, he kept an eye on the CCTV on the monitor in his office. Which is why he saw the fight; not the very start, a punch or three had already been thrown when the movement caught his attention.

Out of the office and back into the bar, mentally shrugging, it happened. It was the industry he worked in. The two guys were throwing unconvincing punches. Most fights were over quickly. Tom pulled and pushed his way through.

“Enough.” He caught eye contact with both of the fighters. “Time to go.” Both guys argued their reasons to stay, but Tom had rules, and the first one was that fighting was bad for business. He nodded to James, who had worked behind the bar nearly a year and they escorted the two men to the front door, Tom shooting a foul glare at the door staff who should have been dealing with the problem.

The guys were still grumbling, but they headed in different directions, and Tom gave the nod to the two burly guys on the door. Neither one of the fighters was to be allowed back in. He would be having a chat about why he had to dive in to stop a fight when he paid wages for door staff.

Pushing through the double doors, he found the bar back in full swing. Nothing out of the normal way of things. His phone buzzed in his pocket and he slipped it out, and opened the message.  He was late with his loan payment. He knew that. He hoped, that after he had paid the wages tonight there would be enough to cover the loan.

The evening rumbled towards closing, and everyone laughed, drank their last drink, and finally went home. The staff cleaned up, and he paid their wages; cash, not one of them would be paying tax on their earnings. He counted what was left; it was nearly enough, he was short a couple of hundred. He made the call he was dreading as he locked the door behind James. He had given up his flat and moved into the back room to save money until the loan was paid off. He had been there over a year now, and although he mostly made his payments on time, he still owed more than he had borrowed.

“Do you have the money?” No greeting, no small talk.

“I do. I’ve been working hard the last few days. Can I bring it to you in the morning?” Tom was tired and what he wanted most to do was to crawl into his bed and sleep not drag himself across town to see the man he hated most in the world.

“I tell you what, Tommy boy. I will call ‘round to see you in the morning. You can pay me then, and I’ll have a cup of coffee with you, too. There’s something we need to discuss.” The voice sounded as though it had been soaked in whisky and filtered through gravel. Tom agreed, although his choices were limited.

In the morning, with a cup of coffee inside him and an envelope holding his loan payment, he considered himself ready to meet the man who arrived through the back door, which was left open for him to make a discrete arrival.

“Tommy?” He reminded Tom of a shark with small teeth, bared in the semblance of a smile.

“Craig, good to see you.” It was a lie; both of them knew it.

“I need to ask you a favour. I need you to drop a package off for me. I’m getting too much attention and everyone knows my guys; you’re nobody, you’re not known.” He watched Tom’s eyes and saw the hesitation. “I’ll ignore the fact that your payment was late this month, to sweeten the deal, and I’ll make next month’s payment myself.” The shark’s teeth smile was back.

“I’ve never gotten involved in anything like that.” Tom poured coffee and passed the cup across the bar.

“Never delivered a parcel for a friend?” Craig shook his head as though he was disappointed.

“Do I have a choice?” Tom’s shoulders slumped.

“No. Not at all.” Craig’s eyes were hard, like bullets.

“Where does it have to go?”

“Good boy, Tommy.” Craig slurped from his cup. “Great coffee.” He pulled a scrap of paper out of his pocket and pushed it across the table, and a small package from his other pocket. “Before the end of the day, please.” He tapped his hands on the bar, grabbed the envelope, and walked through to the back door.

Tom opened a cupboard behind the bar and found a pair of thin vinyl gloves, slipping his hands inside. He was not going to leave any evidence that he had touched anything. Taking a breath, a deep sad gust of air dragged into his lungs; he collected the address and the parcel one in each gloved hand and slid both into a plastic bin liner, checking the address. He knew the area and the road; he would have to look for the house.

The journey was uneventful and he pulled up in a comfortable-looking neighbourhood, where the house he was to deliver to sat back from the road; he left his car on the street and, still wearing the gloves, he carried the parcel. He rang the bell and waited. A woman answered the door, and he smiled.

“Hi. Courier. Parcel from Craig.” She nodded, smiled, and took the parcel. He stepped away from the door and walked away. That was it. Tom thanked everything in the universe.

He climbed into his car, stripped the gloves off, and dropped them into the bin liner. The piece of paper with the address on it was still in there, and he balled the whole thing up and pushed it under the seat. He would look for a rubbish bin to get rid of it.

He turned left and right as a precaution to make sure there was nobody following him. He was fine.

At the junction with the main road, his heart stopped. A line of police cars and two vans waited, ready to pounce. He sat still in the junction, waiting for someone to flash blue lights or wail a siren, but nothing happened. His heart beat fast and his breath was shallow, cold sweat trickled between his shoulder blades, but nothing happened. He watched a uniformed officer walk down the pavement and signal to the others. They moved off as one and turned the corner into the street he had just left. It could be a coincidence; of course it could. The chances were, however, against it. He indicated away from the line of police cars and pulled out onto the main road. His breathing slowed, his heart came back to a reasonable rate, and he drove at exactly one mile below the speed limit all the way home.

In the bar, grabbing a newspaper he pushed out into the beer garden, where he crumpled the paper, throwing it into the barbecue pit they used through the summer. He lit the paper, setting it ablaze, before he added the bag with the gloves and address, standing to watch them burn, until only a pile of ashes was left. He mixed and crushed the ashes and swept them carefully into a dustpan before sprinkling them carefully into the big commercial bin at the back of the bar.

His phone was ringing when he came back inside. He was not surprised to see Craig’s name on the screen.

“All done?” he asked. No chit chat.

“Yeah.” Tom was not going to admit seeing the police.

“Thanks, mate.” He hung up.

The night flew past, and the takings were good. Tom sat alone at the end of the evening; the bar was clean and the takings were in the bag ready to go to the bank, sitting on the floor in his bedroom. A quiet knock on the front door took him by surprise. He checked the CCTV. Craig was standing on the doorstep. Cringing away from being asked to do another favour and knowing that he could not pretend to be out, Tom’s steps were slow.

He opened the door and stepped back, watching Craig land on the floor.

“Shit, Craig.” He put his hand on the man’s shoulder, thinking he had drunk too much, but the greyness of his skin told him a different story. Tom grabbed the collar of Craig’s coat and pulled the man in so that he could lock the door. He opened the front of Craig’s coat and found the wound. It was an easy search. The dark red stain on the white shirt told of a large amount of blood already lost. “Craig, can you hear me? I’ve got to call the ambulance. I can’t fix this one.” The eyes that looked back at him were unfocused and glassy.

Tom grabbed his phone and called for an ambulance. They arrived less than two minutes later, but the time seemed long to Tom. His mind raced with questions. He was no friend of Craig’s; the man would not come here by choice. Craig was a career criminal; he had, presumably, a great many enemies who would be glad to see him gone, but why would he land up on the doorstep of Tom’s bar?

The ambulance crew took Craig away with blue lights and sirens. The police arrived and took photos of the floor, the walls, the cloths Tom had used to try to stop the bleeding. They talked to Tom, told him they would be back, and followed the ambulance in the hope of being able to talk to Craig.

Tom cleaned up, the floor, the cloths, the door, his shirt, and finally himself in the shower. He made himself a coffee and sat at a table. A movement by the front door reminded him that he had left the CCTV monitor on. A heavy set man stood on the step and Tom watched with curiosity as he pushed his weight against the lock. At the same time, a noise from behind him told him that someone was kicking in the back door. He was angry; no, he was furious. His day had been a new low, and he had tried hard to deal with it and keep himself safe. Whoever was planning on coming into his bar had better expect a headache.

Tom hefted the baseball bat which lived behind the bar, in case of just this sort of incident. He stood to the side of the double front doors and watched the lock give a little each time it was pushed. From the back of the building, he heard another kick, but he knew that was a strong metal door, and it would take a little while.

When the lock gave, he was ready, and he met the intruder with a good hard swing of the bat, sending him sprawling across the floor. Tom kicked the man’s shoulder, turning him onto his back and sending his butcher’s knife skittering towards Tom. Losing the tenuous grip he had on his temper, he hit down hard on the hand that had held the knife. The man groaned, and Tom smiled. There was no longer any kicking going on at the back of the building, which either meant the other person was inside or had given up and run around to the front. Tom stepped away from the door and waited. It was not a long wait; a shorter, slimmer man slipped through the door, almost falling over the heavyset guy on the floor. Tom connected the bat with his shoulder as he was stumbling. He cursed loudly and fell heavily to the floor, with another blow to the head making sure he stayed there.

For a few minutes, Tom thought hard about what his next step should be. Craig was a bad guy, that was for sure, but he was a bad guy Tom knew, if something happened to Craig, there would be new, unknown, maybe worse guys taking his place. On the other hand, the two on the floor, neither of whom he recognised and who would be waking up shortly with headaches, were here for a reason; not to rob him, that was sure, not with Craig stabbed on his doorstep. There had to be a connection.

Tom decided to take the offensive. He poked the smaller of the two men with his bat.

“Hey?” he asked. The man replied with a groan. Tom raised the bat, ready to hit again, and the man pulled an arm across his face. “Okay, so we know you are awake. Why are you here?”

“Looking for Craig. He came down here, to see you. He was raging, but he never came back.” The man spat blood from his mouth.

“He’s in the hospital; somebody stabbed him and he landed on my doorstep, bleeding his guts out. If what you are saying is true, you will pick up Godzilla over there and get out of my bar.” In the end, Tom had to help him drag the big one out onto the pavement before slamming his door and fetching some wood from the shed to screw up the broken doors until he could get a proper job done in the morning. He checked the back door, which was still holding, and cleaned his floor again before washing his hands and making a fresh cup of coffee. This was not over, and he was going to be ready for whatever came next.

The sky began to lose the dark edges, and still Tom sat. Eventuallym the phone rang. He slid his finger slowly across the screen.



“Thanks. I was all for blaming you; my clients had a visit just after you. I thought you dropped me in it. The client caught up with me before I got to you. They arrested him. They told me he slipped out of a raid earlier today; his wife got taken in. They were laughing, saying they’d been watching the house for months; they’d only pulled surveillance off this morning so that the raid wouldn’t be compromised. You were a lucky boy.” There was a pause while he took some slow breaths. “You saved me, Tommy. I owe you. No more debt. It’s gone, mate.”

“No more favours?” Tom pushed his advantage.

“No more. Jimmy and Mick just turned up. You smacked them up.” He laughed a little.

“Bye, Craig.” Tom heard the phone disconnect.

Exhausted, Tom slid between the sheets, hoping for a few hours of rest, if not sleep, but he slept long and deep, safe in the knowledge that the danger was over.

She looked like her sister. Same height, similar build, her hair was a little longer, and her fuse a good deal shorter. They had grown up on hard streets, where you stood your ground or expected a beating. Revenge was a norm, and punishment for grassing up family was swift and brutal.

The petrol that glugged through the letterbox in the early morning before people were on their way to work landed and spread across the flooring; the petrol-soaked rag sparked and the roar and cackle told her that honour had been satisfied.

Tom heard the roar; he dreamed he was being chased by a lion, the roar shaking the ground and the power of the animal making his heart beat hard against his chest. He sat up, sweating, and smelled the smoke. Hearing the sounds of explosion and breaking glass, he knew the fire had reached the bar area and his only chance was to leave through the back door, if he could reach it before the fire got there.

He slipped into the corridor, not sure if someone would be waiting for him on the other side of the door, but without any choice. He grabbed the cash bag and threw open the back door. The alley was empty. He stepped out into the bright sunshine, hearing sirens screaming towards him again, this time on top of fire engines. It would never be over. He shrugged his shoulders, and, turning away from the high street, left the bar and the problems behind him. He could deal with it later. He could rebuild. He might even sell the plot and move away, maybe a new city, maybe even a different business. The night had changed things. He was free to make different choices.