English Roulette

The turf war exploded in Stockwell when that famously sweaty London summer of 1977 got underway. By November the violence was out of control. Rundown apartments on grey housing estates, drop-in centers and late night liquor stores—every one of them with no dog in the fight—were ransacked or firebombed. No citizen slept without a weapon at the ready. As the culture of Punk took over the country, the streets of South London were on fire and someone had to put a stop to the madness.

A meeting was organized between community leaders. Not councilors, police or Men of the Cloth, but the only leaders in that community who could genuinely affect the law of the street. Two men who had the power to save a life or have a man killed. Crusher Smith and Ruben Ruben both initially dismissed the idea of liaising, but as events lurched from grim to disastrous, reluctantly they agreed. Finding common ground and reaching terms for a ceasefire had become an overwhelming priority for both crime lords. Scotland Yard were on the verge of launching a massive take-over the streets, paralyzing the drug trade and possibly resulting in the imprisonment of both men.

But negotiations were not going well. For two hours Crusher and Ruben sat across a table in a dimly lit shed at the back of Babylon nightclub, just behind the Kennington Oval. A neutral bodyguard stood in the corner as the two men tried to divide the streets and rule on who could sell where and what corner belonged to which dealer. The jewel in the crown, or rather jewels, were the blocks of squats that peppered the estates. Hundreds of drug-users lived or passed through the squats and the customer-base was enormously lucrative.

Crusher was a powerfully built man, more than two metres tall and ten axe handles across the shoulders. His entire frame was defined by his barrel chest. Perhaps the Far Right Extremist wasn’t the brightest light on the Christmas tree, but he had thinker behind him. A strategist pulling the strings. He’d get through this negotiation, no matter what. Ruben, with his stringy limbs and pasty face, was merely a short-term problem.

But nothing was going to plan. When the two crime lords had run out of ideas and tempers were fraying, the bodyguard suggested their girlfriends joined them for a smoke and a coffee, after which they could all try again. Not a bad plan. The bodyguard would wait outside in the car until they called his name. Since no one was carrying weapons, the opportunity to relax and regroup could accelerate negotiations.

Lucy and Krass were not simple eye candy. Nor were they trophy wives or in anyway submissive little women. Both girls were in their mid-twenties, South London born and bred and as streetwise as it got. Lucy wore her hair in long thin colorful braids that swung around her milky white face, giving her a doll-like appearance. Her intelligent eyes were somewhat excessively made up with purple eye shadow and her green jumpsuit was tied off at the waist with a chain.

Krass was a different kind of animal. She’d served three terms in Holloway Prison and when she walked alone into a bar, the atmosphere changed. Now her ebony complexion glowed, her head was completely shaved and she wore leathers and Doctor Martin boots.

Crusher pulled out a chair for his girl Lucy to sit beside him. As Krass made her way to Ruben’s side, Crusher eyed her with a certain trepidation. As teenagers the two had dated and there were those who’d given him a lot of stick for getting involved with a black girl. Ruben was aware of this and looked a little uncomfortable at the prospect of his girl Krass sitting at the same table as her old boyfriend. But there they were. And no one thought to mention food.

The bodyguard sat at the wheel of the car, eyeing the shed door.

“You men can’t work it out,” said Krass. A wry smile broke out on her face.

Ruben slapped his hand down on the table. “That man there is being obtuse.” He pointed a finger in Crusher’s face. “You’re being obtuse. Unreasonable.”

Crusher’s face remained expressionless. “I’ve tried to be flexible.” He took a cigarette from the packet on the table and lit it up. Blew a cloud of smoke down into Krass’ face.

“I don’t approve of smoking,” she said.

“Stay out of my business.” Crusher spat on the carpet and let out a long and very bored sigh.

“Does anybody have anything constructive to add?” Lucy wanted to get the meeting done. She had plans for that evening. Big plans.

Krass stood up. All eyes were on her. “Take it easy,” she said, reaching inside of her leather jacket. She placed the revolver on the table in front of her. “I think you men should wait in the car with the bodyguard.”

The temperature in the room went up a notch. Crusher and Ruben stared at each other while Lucy examined the revolver from the other side of the table.

Ruben reached out and touched Krass’ sleeve. “What are you up to darling? No weapons was the agreement.”

“Agreement, ha!” she scoffed. “You men can’t reach an agreement.” She sat back down, folded her arms and smiled at Lucy. “That cylinder holds five bullets. We put two in it. Then you and I play a little Russian roulette.”

“Jesus,” said Crusher. “Don’t you think that’s—”

“—That’s the only way this gets solved.” Krass glared at Lucy. “You up to it superstar? Or are you just his slightly overweight hot water bottle?”

Lucy clenched her fists. Her shoulders went back. “No one talks to me like that. No one. . .”

Krass pointed at Ruben. “If I live, my man here gets everything. I lose, I die, you two walk away with the lot and Ruben will get out of town. Permanently.”

Crusher stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray. Examined the nicotine stains on his fingertips. “I don’t like it. My girl Lucy here’s not the type for gun battle.” He smiled at her and placed his hand across hers.

Krass rolled her eyes and scowled at Crusher. She threw her hands up. “Any better suggestions? Sorry your chick is so delicate.”

Lucy shook off Crusher’s attentions and stood up. Her eyes narrow, her face hard. “I’ll do it. You men get out.”

Crusher scoffed and marched out of the room. Ruben sat very still, staring at the revolver.

“Get out,” said Lucy.

“Come back when you hear a bang,” said Krass.

The door closed. The two women were alone.

*

Krass slipped the two bullets into the cylinder, spun it, locked the weapon, cocked it and put it to her temple. The color drained from her face. Her breathing turned heavy. She closed her eyes and pulled the trigger.

Click

“Jesus Christ.” Krass threw the weapon on to the table. Her shoulders fell forward and her eyes welled. “That was harder than I thought.”

From the opposite side of the table, Lucy put her hand out. “Can you slide the weapon over here please?”

Krass exhaled and gathered herself. In a certain sense it had been embarrassing, displaying such nerves but she didn’t dwell on it. “Come sit by me here, so we don’t have to sling the gun around.”

Lucy shrugged her shoulders. “Alright.” She strolled around the table. “You like giving orders, don’t you?”

She smirked. “Doesn’t everybody? Damn I need a drink.”

“Can you tell me something?” Lucy pushed the braided locks up out of her face. “When you dated Crusher, was he a bit of a child?”

Krass turned completely serious. She hadn’t expected such a personal question. It threw her out of character and she burst out laughing. “A child?  The man was a big baby.”

Laughter from both girls rang out in the room. Lucy pulled out a tissue to dry her eyes and handed Krass one.

A knock at the door. A male voice called out, “What’s going on in there?”

“Get lost,” shouted Krass. She took the tissue from Lucy. “Thanks.” She dabbed her eyes and threw the tissue to one side. “Does he still have nightmares?”

“Yes,” replied Lucy. She shook her head. “He has trouble sleeping. That’s why we go out so much.”

Krass picked up the revolver. Felt the weight of it in her hand. “You off out tonight.”

“Sure,” said Lucy. She adjusted the chain around her waist. “I’m putting on weight alright. Thought we’d go the West End. Maybe Evolutions at Covent Garden.”

Krass handed her the weapon. “Really? I’ve always wanted to go there. Get out of all this Sarf London bullshit for a night.”

Lucy balanced the weapon on her knee. He eyes widened. “We could all meet? Me and you could check out the New Wave bands and those babies out there could finish their argument.”

Krass looked into her eyes. They had an innocence she hadn’t expected. “Okay. It’s a date.” And when she said that, she meant it.

“You spin this, will you?” She handed Krass the revolver. “Guns kinda creep me out.”

Krass held the weapon in front of her. She flicked her hand over the cylinder and said to herself, “Around and around it goes, where it stops. . .”  She stared into the cylinder. The nose of the bullets. A shiver ran up her spine as she realized where they were chambered. She cocked the weapon, the round went under the hammer and she took a deep breath.

Lucy hummed lightly to herself. She smiled. “So what you gonna wear tonight? Anything special.”

“Whatever your boyfriend wants me to,” replied Krass. “I’m sorry.” She reached over and pressed the muzzle against the girl’s temple and pulled the trigger.

The shot rang out filling Krass’ ears as Lucy’s head snapped to one side. She crumpled to the floor. That cordite-like scent filled the air.

“I’m sorry,” muttered Krass. “So very very sorry.” Her knees turned to jelly and she dropped the weapon by Lucy’s side. The door burst open and both men charged into the room. She reached down and picked up the gun, gazing at Ruben with a distant look in her eyes. “Make sure she’s dead, will you darling.”

An evil smile appeared on Ruben’s face. “Sure. Looks like we win my love.”

Crusher stood by the door, not moving or speaking.

Ruben reached down and pressed his finger against the dead girl’s jugular vein. “She’s gone. She’s moved up one.”

From behind him Krass put the revolver to his head. “So have I.” She pulled the trigger, his body jumped and he collapsed on to the dead girl. Krass wiped the weapon down with a tissue and placed it in Ruben’s hand. She staggered slightly and approached Crusher. “I feel ill.”

“Don’t worry. Damn I’ve missed you,” he said. “Looks like it all worked out.” He took her in his arms and kissed her. They gave the dead bodies one final glance. “Suicide pact,” he said. “Couldn’t take the pressure of a turf war.”

He chuckled, took her hand and opened the door.

“In future, when I talk, you listen,” said Krass.

He scoffed.

“I told you my plan would work.” She closed the door behind them and followed Crusher out to the car where the bodyguard was waiting for him with very explicit instructions. Her, very explicit instructions.

 

Thank God, the war was over. The kings were dead. Long live the queen.

 

by Peter L. Abram 2016© this short story first appeared in the November 2016 edition of Ningbo Focus magazine.

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