Part 3 of Everyone a Winner

Joe didn’t know why he’d had the sudden urge to go to the arcade on his way to the bank.

After losing all his pocket change making his way from one gambling machine to another, he heard some cheerful, though slightly off-key fairground music, and went to investigate.

Everyone a Winner! the machine claimed. It was a claw machine full of popular cartoon characters, though he suspected that they were actually fakes. But as he looked through the window, he saw one had an added bonus — he couldn’t tell straight away what the character was, but attached to its back with an elastic band was a roll of £5 notes!

He put his last coin into the machine and it sprang to life. This was definitely his one and only attempt at this. Somehow… he felt that his luck had changed.

He didn’t pay much attention to the controls — it was as if the claw was guiding itself, and was almost drawn to the doll. The claw snapped closed with surprising strength and force, and when it pulled the target clear he could see, appropriately, this was the old avaricious duck character, complete with walking stick, top hat and lunettes. The claw almost threw the toy into the chute. The prize door flashed, the off-key electronic fairground music announced his victory in a self-aggrandising way as if to declare triumphantly — See — everyone IS a winner!

He pulled open the door and released his prize. Pulling the money off the doll he could see that it wasn’t a roll — but one note wrapped around a piece of printed cardboard. And then he realised something else — it was an old fiver, and not even legal tender anymore!

He almost threw the toy to the floor in disgust, but at the last minute he stopped. It was irony — though perhaps in the Alanis Morrissette sense of the word, that he should spend his last coin on useless money, and a plush keyring of the character who embodied miserly greed.

He stuffed the toy in his pocket and checked his watch — he was going to have to hurry to get to the bank before it closed.

Most of the bank had been given over to automated telling machines, ones that performed different functions. But all these were useless to him at the moment. He’d left his wallet with his cards at home. He was going to have to speak to a person. The greeter seemed disappointed that none of the machines would do the trick, and reluctantly showed him to the end of the queue, where five people, mostly old-aged pensioners from the looks, waited to see one of the two counter staff — though the counter had enough stations to accommodate three times that number.

When it was Joe’s turn, the clock had already showing 16:40. The greeter had closed one of the glass double doors and was allowing no-one else to enter. The tellers were almost constantly checking their watches. Well, he worked in a shop too. He knew how annoying it could be when people came in just before closing. But he wouldn’t let a customer catch him like that. Very bad manners. And very bad for business.

He stepped up to the counter. The teller was a young Asian woman, quite pretty thought Joe — though a little dishevelled at the end of what must have been a very busy day. I’m Anish! How can I help you today? announced the enamelled gold plaque pinned to the lapel of her uniform jacket.

“What can I do for you sir?” she said flatly, without even looking in Joe’s direction.

“Hello! Sorry to come in so late and everything, but I need to get the takings from the shop in today — I closed early you see as I’m away on holiday for a week — Fuerte Ventura with my partner, she loves the beach, more of a city break man myself — and rather stupidly I left my wallet with my cards and the night-safe key at home!” he laughed, self-deprecatingly. Anish continued to hammer at her keyboard.

“What name is it please sir?” she said again, tonelessly.

One of the things that annoyed Joe on a regular basis was the way young people (that is, younger than him) always said statements as if they were questions? The intonation always raising at the end? It’s one of those self help books? Written by that scientist on the TV? He does the show with that comedian?

Anish was the exception — or the opposite — to that rule. She could ask a question with no intonation at all.

“It’s Konrad. With a K!” said Joe, as he always did.

“I’m sorry?” said Anish, looking up for the first time.

“Konrad, like the author, but with a K. Joseph Konrad.”

“I’m sorry?” This response was obviously not following the script in Anish’s head.

“Joseph Konrad? Heart of Darkness — you know — Apocalypse Now?”

Anish’s eyes widened.

“I’m sorry sir, there’s no need for that kind of language.”

“What? I didn’t…”

“Please wait there,” she said, getting up and hurrying towards the hidden door in the wall behind her.

The customer next to him shot him a disapproving look. What did they think he’d said?

A young man came out through the door and took Anish’s seat. He looked a bit younger than Joe, perhaps in his late twenties. Like his gelled back hair and his pencil moustache, his suit was immaculate. His name plate just carried his name, Charlie, and nothing else.

“I’m sorry sir,” he said, “but that kind of language is not acceptable here. Our staff deserve to be treated with respect at all times, and if you continue to behave in that manner you’ll be escorted from the premises. Do you understand?”

Joe was dumbfounded. “I’m really sorry if I offended her in any way, but I really don’t know what she thought I said — I was just telling her my name!” He smiled to punctuate his statement and try to calm the situation. It didn’t work.

“OK. Can you tell me your name?” Charlie tapped at the keyboard, probably to log himself in to the terminal.

“Right. OK. It’s Konrad, with a K.”

“Surname?”

tap tap tap

That is my surname. Konrad, with a K. Joseph Konrad, like the…” Joe stopped — that’s what had gotten him in trouble in the first place.

“Thank you. Postcode?”

“Erm — mine or the shop?”

“We’ll start with your personal account and go from there, shall we sir?”

“OK. Charlie Romeo eight, four whiskey tango.”

The young man looked up in shock.

“What did you say to me?” There was no sir this time.

“My postcode — C R eight, four W T.”

“You know damn well what you said.” Charlie looked at point over Joe’s left shoulder.

Charlie.

Joe’s spine turned to jelly as a cold wash of realisation went through him. What does he think I said?

Joe turned to see what he was looking at. A huge bald man in a very tight-fitting suit — a larger and cheaper version of Charlie’s, was stood right behind him. The way he was bulked out, everything other than some sort of smock would be tight-fitting. His name plate just said Welcome! His name, Joe suspected, was included in the photo ID he wore in the plastic security armband that was velcro’ed around his massive left bicep.

“Look,” said Joe, turning back to Charlie. “This has all been some kind of stupid mistake, a misunderstanding!”

“We’re stupid now are we, sir?” a thick voice said from behind him.

“Look, no, really… there’s no need for this…”

“Quite right, there is no need for this, sir.”

“No, look. I just came in to bank my takings, as I’ve forgotten my cards and night-safe key. That’s all I want to do. Can we just, do that, and… you know, forget about it?” Joe shrugged, still trying to smile in a good natured manner.

Charlie stared back at him.

“Right,” he said, after a long pause. He picked up a pad of post-it notes and a branded promotional pen. We’re here to help YOU! The motto on the side of the pen declared alongside the bank logo.

“Write your full name and address, and the name and address of your business, on there. I’ll put that into the system and we’ll start again. This is your last chance. Any more of your abuse and you’ll be out the door, and so will your accounts. Is that clear?”

Joe opened his mouth to reply, but then thought better of it. He just nodded.

He picked up the pen and clicked it.

J…

The pen didn’t work. He scribbled on the top post-it, but no ink appeared. It just ripped a hole in the bright yellow paper.

Charlie continued to stare at him. He was convinced he could feel the security guard literally breathing down his neck. He became aware he was sweating.

“Th..the pen…” he said, shrugging. The pen suddenly slipped out of his fingers and spun through the air towards Charlie, clattering across his keyboard.

“Right. OUT!” the guard said, grabbing both Joe’s upper arms with his massive paw-like hands.

“Stop — WAIT! This is stupid, look — I just want to get the money in… You’re hurting me!”

Joe was part carried, part dragged to the door, where he was unceremoniously pitched onto the pavement on his hands and knees.

He looked over his shoulder to see the security guard locking the glass door at top and bottom, whilst the ‘greeter’ pressed a button in a wall panel. A dull metal shutter started to roll out of its box above the doorframe with a grinding and unpleasant screeching noise — like someone running their fingernails across a blackboard.

Joe picked himself up. Though the street was filled with late shoppers and people on their way home, they just walked around him like he wasn’t even there — and no-one stopped to ask if he was OK. As it happened, he wasn’t that OK. His hands were chafed from the fall, and his trousers were ripped under his right knee — which was also cut. Blood seeped into the frayed edges of the fabric. His money was still secure in the old school satchel he used specifically for this purpose, across his body on its thin leather strap.

He was self-conscious and upon catching the eye of any passers-by he immediately gave an embarrassed smile — but they were too busy ignoring him to care. Joe limped to a bus shelter a few yards away — a bus had just gone and so it was empty. He sat down gingerly on the metal shelf that passed as a seat for the elderly, to better survey the damage. His knee hurt but it wasn’t badly cut, just a schoolyard scrape. He pulled a bottle of water out of the satchel and felt in his pockets for a paper tissue — and came out with the toy duck.

“Fat lot of good you were!” he said to it, before pushing it back into his pocket.

He found a cafe napkin in one of his other pockets, and damping it with the water from the bottle, cleaned the dirt and grit out of his knee.

Ahem,” said somebody, almost comically. Joe looked up. An old man with a stick was standing there, right in front of him. He was leaning on an expensive-looking wooden walking stick. The old man was very well dressed in a well-fitting dark brown suit and red shot-silk waistcoat, complete with gold watch-chain. The waistcoat matched the cravat around his neck under the starched open collar of a shirt so white it dazzled. The man’s face looked as if it had been chiselled out of stone. A still-strong square jaw, thin-lipped mouth and two intensely blue eyes — either side of a nose that identified the man as a career boxer — and from the damage, perhaps not a particularly good one back in the day.

Joe took all this in, and smiled. “Thanks, I’m fine. Just had a bit of a misunderstanding in the…”

AHEM!” the old man said again, this time rattling some phlegm in the back of his throat. He pointed twice, with a long broken-knuckled finger at the sign above the seat Joe was occupying. Anonymous icon pictures of an old man and an old woman with sticks, and a pregnant woman.

“Oh — I’m sorry. I’m nearly done — I’m just cleaning my knee, you see…”

Without warning the old man whacked Joe across the left shin with his walking stick with a sound like a gunshot. Pain — surprisingly intense and agonising — flashed up and down Joe’s left leg, all the way to the end of each of his toes, exploding in his knee and hip. His leg gave way and he landed clumsily on the floor on his backside. He instinctively grabbed at his leg and hugged it, though this would do nothing for the pain.

The old man prodded Joe aside with the stick, and with a satisfied sigh, parked himself on the little metal seat. A flash suddenly dazzled Joe — followed by another. Two black teenagers in school uniform were taking photos — whilst others were filming him.

“That’s what you get when you don’t respeck the olds, yeah, innit! Righteous!

“Stop that! I wasn’t… I was just cleaning… There was absolutely no need for that!” said Joe, trying to catch his breath.

“Lookit, man! The hipster’s cryin’!”

Joe pushed himself back against the wall of the shelter, and slowly, sliding his back up the wall, stood up. His right leg was no longer the concern — his left felt almost totally numb, but he couldn’t stay here any longer. A crowd was starting to form to see what all the commotion was about. It struck Joe as odd that when he had needed help, he had been ignored. But now — he was the centre of attention, like a street performer.

He tried the leg gingerly — it would bear his weight. He started to hobble away, the crowd parting to let him pass.

“Yeah, you ain’t getting no bus, man. You better walk — if you can after getting your ass kicked by a pensioner!” his tormentor continued to jeer.

After about a hundred yards, which seemed to take an hour, Joe was anonymous again. He limped to the curb and tried to flag a taxi; he didn’t like walking around with this amount of money on him anyway, but now walking back to the shop or home was completely out of the question. Most of the cabs that passed him were walled in by traffic or already had fares. Two or three cabs indicated to come in to the side of the road and stop, but as soon as they saw him, quickly accelerated again and drove on.

This wasn’t going to work. He limped back to the other side of the pavement and leaned against the wall of a long-closed newsagents. He took out his phone — he could try calling a cab, or if all else failed, his partner, Angie.

The phone didn’t respond as it took it out of his pocket. He pressed the button — the flashing icon of an empty battery appeared. How had that happened? He was sure he had plenty of charge the last time he looked, when he left the shop.

He stuffed it back in his pocket. He spotted an old phone box — now nothing more than a urinal. Sure, people had pissed in them when they had phones — but with one on every street corner, you were never out of touch. No worries about signal or battery life then. But then of course, most of the phones were already gone when he was a boy. He was being nostalgic for a time he didn’t actually remember.

There was nothing else for it — he’d have to walk. The shop was closer, so that was his target. He could phone from there or plug the phone into the spare charger on his desk.

It seemed to get dark very quickly, and even though the people on the street were still ignoring him, he felt very visible, self-conscious, exposed. He was very aware of the money in the satchel and wanted to turn the bag around his body, to hug it protectively. But he was also paranoid about that. He’d seen a programme on TV where people instinctively checked that they wallet, phone and keys were still there, in the process instantly revealing the locations to any casually observant thief.

Sweat gathering calmly down his back, he finally arrived back at the shop after what seemed like hours. He fumbled the keys once or twice but eventually the door was open and he was inside, locking it again. He put his back to it and slid down to the floor — a reverse to the process he’d used to stand up earlier. When his bum hit the floor and he felt the wiry bristles of the welcome mat prickling through his trousers, he began to cry, silently.

He checked his watch. It was only half-past five. Angie would be on the commute trail now, she wouldn’t be home for another hour.

“Hey Siri — Lights!” he called, and the shop lights came on. His eyes had become accustomed to the orange sodium glow from the street lamps. The sudden blue-white of the overheads and spotlights made his eyes sting, the colours of all the book covers, especially the splay off new children’s books just to his right, seemed garish and unnecessary.

He struggled to his feet. The feeling in his leg was slowly returning, along with some extra pain, especially when he moved his foot. He walked through the display tables and up the three steps to the main level, heading straight for his office at the back. More fumbling with the key and he was in, back inside his safe little sanctum — a room just big enough for a desk and chair, and one filling cabinet where the instant coffee and teabags were stored. He took off the satchel and put it on the floor next to the desk, and collapsed heavily into the chair.

Matching with the rest of the furniture of the room, even the filing cabinet, this was an old wooden desk chair. It swivelled on its five wooden feet, and reclined on strong metal springs. The seat was upholstered in faded and cracked green leather, the back and arms formed a near perfect semicircle supported by wooden struts. One of the springs had been over strained at some point in its history, which gave the seat a slight list to the left. Nevertheless, Joe loved it. The desk was perhaps of the same lineage, the chestnut top had a green leather inlay to stop a blotter from slipping. Even the phone was an antique — the black bakelite casing concealed a modern phone beneath. The brass rotary dial now delivered a digital dialling code — but the bells were real. The desk lamp however was a total fake. It was brass, with a green glass shade, but instead of a regular light bulb it had a halogen tube. Joe had scoured antique shops and online sales sites for months and not found an original, and so had finally settled for this.

Of course all of that effort to maintain an old-world aesthetic was defeated by the sleek slim aluminium case of his laptop and the squat cylindrical speaker interface.

Joe sat up — it was now entirely dark. He fumbled for the switch for his desk lamp and switched it on, going in pocket for his phone. Getting a charger cable out his desk drawer he plugged it into one of the ports in the lap top. The phone immediately sprang into life. The battery indicator showed full… and he had several missed calls and messages — and he’d been in the shop for over half and hour! He must have dozed off… He was just about to check his messages when the desk phone rang. He pressed a hidden button just under the dial to activate the speaker phone.

“Hello?” his voice cracked, his throat was dry.

“Hello sir? This is the police.”

“Sure,” said Siri. “Now playing a personalised station by The Police.”

“I’m sorry sir? We didn’t catch that — we had reports of an armed man breaking into your shop. Are you on the premises now? Can you turn the music down?”

“What? Yes, I am. He’s here now? Siri stop!”

“…Their logic ties me up and rapes me,” sang Sting.

“We got that sir. Try and move to a secure location — we have an armed response team outside.”

“What? No! Hey Siri STOP!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that,” said Siri.

“Sounds like there’s a woman in there too and they’re being attacked — you are go for breach!” the voice on the phone said, fading as if turning away from the receiver.

The shop’s outside door shattered and splintered apart. Joe sat up in the chair — what the hell was going on? He could hear boots crunching over broken glass.

“Conrad?” said a muffled voice. “Armed police! Can you identify your location? Is the attacker here? Conrad?”

“I’m… in the office!” Joe yelled. “Hey Siri, STOP!”

Roxanne, you don’t have to put on the red light…

The booted feet ran through the shop — Joe could hear some the displays being knocked over. He pushed himself up out the chair as a black shape appeared at the office door. Was it the attacker? He threw his hands up just as the three bullets ran up the middle of chest. He stepped back in disbelief, before falling back into the chair, dead.

“Oh shit,” said the young ART officer into his facemask.

There’s a hole, in my life sang Sting.

“What’s that, Jock?” said his sergeant, squeezing into the door. “That’s him — the suspect. IC1 male, heavy set, thick beard, dirty torn clothing. Did he have a weapon on him? What’s that shiny thing on the floor by his foot?”

The young officer bent down, and the picked it up, breaking all kinds of protocols about crime scenes in the process.

“It’s a metal key ring — with some kind of toy duck… I just saw the metal glint in his hand… I thought…”

“Never mind that now son. Anybody secured the hostages? And shut that bloody CD off!”

Another officer came to the doorway. “Whole building is clear, boss. Nobody here. Oh — that’s him!”

“That’s him who?”

“That’s the shop owner. We might have fucked up.”

“That’s Conrad?”

“Konrad is his surname. Like the author, Joseph Conrad, but with a K.”

“The author?”

“Yeah, you know, Conrad… Moby Dick?”

“What did you say to me?”

Author, photographer and trade union activist. Lived in Japan for 5 years, now working at Cambridge University. Written for Big Finish/BBC Enterprises - Doctor Who and Robin Hood. Two books currently available on Amazon - see my non-fiction on Medium. All content ©Michael Abberton 2020

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