By Col Bury
“What do you mean you’ve… ‘Already paid somebody’, Mrs G?” asked Barney, trying not to fuckin’ swear.
The old dear looked perplexed as she stared at the window cleaner in the doorway, from the waning warmth of her bungalow, snowflakes drifting in with the chill of night.
“Who did you pay?”
“A tall lad. He cleaned my windows yesterday and knocked on, so I paid him.”
Barney bit his lip, hard. “I work alone, Mrs G, you should know that.”
“Oh dear. I just assumed he was working for you. I’m sorry, Barney.”
“You owed a month’s worth, that’s two cleans.”
“I know. I paid him six pounds…” she dipped her head, “… plus a tip. Gave him a tenner.”
Barney pivoted, stifled a, For fuck’s sake, then turned back. “So the cheeky… even took my Christmas tip?”
“Afraid so… Oh, this is terrible… here… let me…” Mrs Groves reached for her tweed, winter coat hanging on a hook in the hallway and pulled a purse from the pocket.
“NO! I wouldn’t dream of taking it. Don’t worry, Mrs G, I’ll catch up with him.”
“You sure, Barney?”
“I’m sure. Now, you watch yourself in this weather. Merry Christmas.” He forced a smile then headed for his next customer, crunching through the snow, but feeling less than Christmassy.
“Not you too, Bob!”
“But he said… shit… have I paid the wrong guy?” Bob Sharples’ wrinkly brow wrinkled some more, eyes widening.
Barney gave an imperceptible nod as he stood in the flat’s communal area, now expecting the whole block to have coughed up anything, including tips, up to a ton.
“The cheeky bastard.”
“You said, he said something, Bob?”
“Er, yeah, he said he was helping you.”
“What, so he mentioned my name?”
“Yeah, so I thought nowt of it an’ just gave him a fiver… an’ a half bottle of whisky. Said he’d make sure you got it. He was so convincing…”
So he’s tall and he knows me. “Can you describe him?”
Sharples rubbed his chin, thinking. “Yeah, he’s a six-footer, white lad, medium build, say about thirty-ish.”
“What colour hair?”
“He had a Beanie hat on… bit like yours. I’d pay you mate, but am skint.” Sharples patted his pockets.
“No worries, Bob. Cheers, for the whisky thought, mate. All the best.” Seething, he headed upstairs to hear the inevitable bad news, thinking about the Chrimbo pressies he’d promised his kids, Beth and Harry.
Leaving the block of flats in the driving snow, with an image forming of the man who’d potentially destroyed his kid’s Christmas, Barney hoped he’d receive better news from the adjacent block. His customers were a lovely bunch, if not a tad naive, over half offering to pay him. But he’d refused them all. This was his problem and he’d deal with it.
The next block was the same, all three storeys having paid the conman. A quick tot-up told him the damage was pushing three ton. However, speaking with residents of the third block, Barney was relieved to find the first three he’d checked hadn’t paid, so he tactically left it at that, not checking the remainder.
With a measly fourteen quid in his back pocket, he went for a pint, as was tradition after collecting, in the Rock Inn.
He’d built up the round from scratch since being made redundant for the second time from a job in the printing industry. These technological times had lessened the need for skilled printers. He knew half a dozen of the regulars in his local had window cleaning rounds, so had initially done some cash in hand work before purchasing a cheap ladder, bucket and chamois leather. After a lot of cold calling, he’d eventually established his £800 per month round.
Sipping a pint of Carling Cold at the bar, his eyes flicked discreetly from the three lads who fitted the description. Family man, Johnno was sound and had been the one who’d ‘employed’ Barney when things were desperate, so he was out of the equation.
Johnno glanced over, perched on a bar-stool. “Been grafting for Chrimbo cash, Barney?”
“Nah, bud. Can’t in this weather.” Barney watched the other two, who were shooting pool, and purposely raised his voice. “Won’t be collecting till next week now either. It’s treacherous out there.”
“Don’t blame you, mate.”
Time to test the water. “So, how much you had in tips, Kev?”
Kevin Anderson glanced up from his shot. “Not much this year. Think everyone’s skint. What about you?”
“Not too bad. How’ve you done, Mikey?”
Mike Wetherall seemed to hesitate, studied the table and didn’t look up. “Same. Credit crunch kicking in, innit?” He missed a straight pot by inches, but still avoided eye contact. With the Beanie hat and constant visits to the fruit machine, Barney knew.
Temperatures had reportedly hit minus 10, and, still bubbling with rage, Barney pulled his collar up, wrapped his scarf round his mouth. The snow-covered bushes hid him from view, as the window cleaner climbed the ladder to the third floor flat on Barney’s patch.
Struggling to make out the dark ascending figure, Barney tossed looks over both shoulders, checked the windows. All clear. He edged forward toward the bottom of the ladder. Not arsed about the ‘seven years of bad luck,’ he stood underneath the ladder.
After again scanning for passers by, he looked up beyond the plethora of falling flakes. “Hey, Mikey! Call yer-self a mate, you backstabbing shithouse!” He booted the bottom rung outwards repeatedly. The ladder slid rapidly away from the building, the top end clattering and scraping the wall and window ledges, a sharp yelp from above. Barney dived sideways as the body thumped the snow, bizarrely like a human starfish, the ladder whacking the conman’s head with a sickening thud.
Barney gasped, agape. “Johnno… WHY?”
No answer, just the silent oozing claret dyeing the snow. But it didn’t prevent Barney undoing the bum bag from round his dead friend’s waist.
Col Bury is the co-editor of Thrillers, Killers 'n' Chillers, and his crime novel is being touted by a NY agent. Col's short stories can be found in anthologies, and scattered around the blogosphere. He blogs, reviews, and interviews crime authors at http://colburysnewcrimefiction.blogspot.com/