Joey hurried home as quickly as he could. He stuck to side streets but even so the morning rush of commuters was unavoidable. His head hurt like hell but he tried to avoid rubbing at it with his sleeve because every time he did he could feel a fresh trickle of blood running through the roots of his hair. He was thankful for the blindness of city people, never wanting to see, never willing to get involved. A few people glanced at him before snapping their eyes back toward the footpath. Blood stained clothes and bruised skin screamed trouble, the kind of stuff nobody wanted to invite into their day. It was after nine by the time he reached the sanctuary of the graffiti mottled stairwell in his block of flats. He knew Sarah would be gone to work, at least he could clean himself up before she saw him.
When he finally got inside the flat and the door snicked closed behind him, it felt as if he had been holding his breath for hours. He exhaled deeply and felt a tiny bit of tension lift off his shoulders. He was rattled to the core by the beating Jimmy had given him, and being forced to wander the streets of Dublin with enough drugs to get a housing estate high slung over his shoulder. He took off the backpack and held it at arm’s length. The package inside the bag was bulkier than the last time and it was defiantly heavier. Jimmy must have been trying him out with that first run, a tester load, to see if he was up to the job. The urge to look inside was overpowering and he had started to open it when Jimmy's warning rang through his mind. His hand stopped and the popping of the zipper teeth echoed in the empty hall. Joey's brain raced as he weighed up the options. In the end he decided ignorance was bliss, it was better not to ask the question if you didn't want to know the answer. He yanked the zipper closed and wiped the tab clean against his top.
The way Joey figured, the less he had to do with whatever was inside, the better. If he never handled the gear then his fingerprints could never be found on it. If he never saw what was inside that bag how the hell could he be blamed for having it. They were weak arguments and Joey knew if he was caught carrying the stuff by the coppers, he was facing some serous jail time. It was clutching at straws to think they would believe he knew nothing about what he was moving around the place, but at least it would be the truth. The truth might not count for much but it might cut a few months off his sentence, if he was caught that is. Being caught by the rozzers might be a long shot but being caught by his sister was another matter entirely. Joey knew he had to hide the bag someplace Sarah wouldn't find it.
He opened his bedroom door and looked for a good hiding place. The wardrobe seemed inviting but it was far too obvious. He put the bag under the bed but after a microsecond he had it pulled back out again, it was the first place anyone would look. He put it under his pillow and covered it with the duvet but it didn't look right, too lumpy, anyway if anyone found the bag in his bedroom there was no way of denying it was his. Joey abandoned his bedroom and went in search of a hiding place elsewhere in the flat. He dismissed all the kitchen presses, Sarah would find the bag in seconds. He tried putting it under the couch but there wasn't enough room. The only other option was in the press under the TV. It was jammed with DVDs and old Xbox games, as well as his Xbox console. Sarah never looked in there, except to put away stuff he had left lying around. Joey pulled dozens of plastic cases out and wedged the bag in the back before dumping the games back on top. It was as good as he could do in the given circumstances.
He closed the timber doors and sat on the couch staring at them, as if they were going to spring open again at any second. As the minutes passed his heart rate slowed and he did his best to rationalise the risk he was taking. How many people carried backpacks in Dublin? Thousands, millions. What was the chances of being pulled in and searched by the coppers out of the blue? Slim. What was the chances of being beaten to a pulp by Jimmy if he didn't do the job? Astronomical!
He raised his hand to the throbbing point on his head and the contact made him wince. He'd better get off his arse and see how bad he looked before Sarah turned up. Joey shuffled as far as the bathroom and turned on the light in the tiny room. He looked at himself in the mirror and was surprised he didn't look worse. His top was a mess, covered in blood stains, as was his tee shirt. He stripped them both off and looked in the mirror again. This time it was worse. His jaw held the promise of a fine bruise already starting to turn a dark shade of red as the blood slowly pooled where Jimmy's knuckles had made his world swim. His ribs were aching and his skin was covered in glowing patches which were soon going to be a rainbow hue of misery. There were smudges of dried blood on his forehead, but not half as much as he thought there should have been judging by the pain which seared his scalp. Jimmy knew how to hurt a man that was for sure.
He explored the dark depths of his hair with tender fingers and found the source of his misery. Joey filled the sink with warm water and gently sponged the blood from his matted hair. It did not take long for the water to turn from clear to dark pink. After he was finished he inspected his handy work and at a casual glance, nobody would ever know that he had been near scalped earlier. The towel he had been using was covered in blood stains by now. How could he look so normal when it felt like he'd been beaten to a pulp? Over the years Joey had taken a few slaps but nothing more. He remembered the day he'd seen Pete Byrne beating the drug dealers in the back of the snooker hall, but he had never truly understood the pain those men were enduring. Jimmy had barely touched him in comparison to that, and it felt like he had been tortured. A cold sweat spread over his body, one caused by equal amounts shock and fear. At last he realised he was dealing with some very very dangerous people, a realisation that was coming far too late. These were men who would hurt him without batting an eye and even kill him without losing one wink of sleep. He had been a fool to think he was special because he had gone to school with Kenny, a royal fool.
His head swam and black rings appeared at the edge of his vision. In some primitive part of his mind he knew he was going to faint and scrabbled around with blind hands until he felt cold porcelain under his fingers. He sat heavily on the toilet, feeling dizziness rush up at him and his eyes spun in his head. His stomach churned and was sure he was going to vomit. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, breathing deeply through his mouth as a chill ran over his skin, but the dark circles at the edge of his vision paused and eventually started to recede. He sat like that for a long time, or at least it felt like a long time before he was well enough to regain his feet. At first his movements were heavy and drunken. He staggered to the sink and turned on the cold tap, letting the sink fill with fresh water. He ducked his head and spooned the chilling liquid over his neck, letting it pour down over his naked back until he felt his strength begin to return. The cold was good, the water was better and eventually he felt half human again. He pulled the stopper and watched the liquid being sucked down the drain and he knew just how helpless that felt. He was being sucked under and there was nothing he could do to stop it. When he eventually felt good enough to let go of the sink, the hamper full of bloodied clothing caught his eye and he knew he had to do something with them before Sarah arrived home for lunch.
Joey grabbed the hamper and pulled it after him into the kitchen. He stood before the washing machine in bemusement, as if it had fallen from outer space. How hard could it be, Sarah was no Mensa candidate, surely he could figure the thing out. He pulled the little handle on the door and it swung open. No problem, what a doddle he thought to himself. After dumping the stained clothes inside and slamming the porthole closed he opened the power drawer. Three slots stared back at him in mockery. Which one should he use? Shit, why in God's name would anyone need three slots and which one was the right one to use. He ladled out a scoop of powder and held it hesitantly over the drawer. A? No B! Ah, fuck he thought and spread it over all three before dipping the cup back in the power box and adding another for good measure.
He pushed the drawer closed and waited, nothing happened. There had to be a start button on the thing someplace so Joey studied the assorted knobs and buttons arranged along the top of the machine. He may as well have been studying Egyptian hieroglyphics for all the sense it made to him and was on the verge of kicking the bloody thing when someone rapped on the front door.
He stood like a stone statue for a second, before another rat-a-tat-tat on the door prodded him into life. He scurried into the hall but he hadn't the luxury of a spy hole so he called out instead.
"Who is it?"
"Joey, it's me," replied the familiar voice.
When Joey opened the door a crack he found Scobie looking in at him like a lost puppy.
"Howyea Joey," he said with a smile which reviled a newly added gap in his teeth.
"What happened your tooth?" asked Joey through the partially opened door. Scobie explored the area with a finger and his eyebrows arched as if surprised by the loss.
"It fell out," he said, still prodding the eroded gum with the tip of his finger.
"What yea want, Scob?" asked Joey, the breeze from the open door chilling his naked chest.
"Can't yea let me in?"
"It's the flamen crack of dawn."
"Please Joey, I know Sarah is gone to work, I saw her down the salon on the way here."
"Come on, Joey. It’s freezing."
It wasn't freezing but Scobie was basically skin and bone, there was no meat on him to keep the heat in. He looked like a scarecrow dressed in an over-sized tracksuit. The last thing he needed today was Scobie hanging around but Joey didn't have the heart to shut the door in his miserable face.
"Five minutes," he said taking the chain off the door to open it fully.
"You're a pal," Scobie said scuttling inside. Joey closed the flat door and replaced the security chain before following his friend into the kitchen. It was only then he realised he was still holding the detergent cup and remembered the washing machine. As Scobie hovered by the counter top he went back to twisting the knobs and jabbing the buttons.
"Need a hand?" asked Scobie after a few minutes.
"This yoke is impossible," said Joey throwing his hands in the air. Scobie came around the counter top and hunkered down in front of the machine. He regarded it earnestly for a few minutes before turning a dial three clicks to the right and pressed a button in the middle of the machine. Joey was amazed to hear it start clicking and the sound of rushing water filled the kitchen.
"How did yea do that?"
"Me ma was never home, you learn these things," said Scobie shrugging his shoulders. Joey dumped the detergent cup back into the powder box and turned on his friend.
"So? What you want, Scob?"
"I got that court hearing in the morning but I can't go in like this. I'm stinking. Any chance of a shower?"
"It's only a bit of hot water."
"You brought your own shower gel, have you?"
"It's only a bit of hot water and a squirt of gel," the rake thin youngster said with a cheeky smile.
"A quick one but don't use all the water, I've not had a wash yet," said Joey thinking to himself that he was far too soft for his own good. Scobie was looking him up and down and in the end he asked.
"What happened to you?"
"Rough night," said Joey shaking his head, and touching the throbbing patch on his jaw where Jimmy had landed the sucker punch.
"Very rough by the look of those bruises," said Scobie nodding toward Joey's ribs. It was Joey's turn to hold up his arm and probe a tender area as if amazed at the damage he found there.
"You should see the other guy," said Joey with a sorry smile. Scobie might be a junky but he was no fool and he didn't look like he was buying one penny's worth of what Joey was selling.
"Can I go so?" he asked, nodding toward the bathroom door.
"Go on, I'll make a brew." Joey watched his friend walk away when something made his memory flash backward to the years they'd spent in school, times when Scobie was full of fun and mischief, always in bother but always happy and smiling.
Scobie had reached the bathroom door when Joey asked, "Why do you do it?"
"Do what, Joe?"
Scobie turned to face Joey. A strange thing happened, the cloak of addiction slipped from his face and revelled the boy he once was. His eyes sparkled and even his shoulders straightened while he considered his answer.
"It's like touching heaven," he said at last. Joey knew about the rush of heroin, the high in the heart of that first hit. It was what made a Junkie a Junkie. They were constantly chasing that feeling and it was the reason so many of them overdosed. After a while it took more and more of the drug to reach the same place until it’s all just too much and like that, it’s over. Joey looked at his buddy and wondered about the living contradiction he had become. He may be chasing heaven, but his body was going through hell.
"It can’t be worth what you’re doing to yourself?"
Scobie smiled at him showing teeth like scattered tombstones against a dark and moonless sky, "It's not much of a sacrifice when you have nothing to lose."
"What about your health, or your family or even friends?"
Joey's words struck the skinny boy like a hammer. As suddenly as the sun had come into his eyes, it vanished. Sadness descended on Scobie as if someone had thrown a sodden blanket over him. The weight of his affliction dragging low his eyes, his mouth and his shoulders. The spark which had burned so fleetingly in his eyes spluttered and died.
"We all don't have people like Sarah in our lives you know. We can’t pick our family. Sometimes getting out of your head is the only safe place to be."
Joey didn't get to finish his sentence, his friend vanished into the bathroom closing the door softly behind him. He'd never known Scobie to be sad at school, he was always laughing and messing around. Joey heard the shower start and with a heavy heart he filled the kettle and plugged it in. When Scobie appeared back in the kitchen his hair was still wet but he looked, and smelled, a thousand times better. Joey handed him a mug of steaming tea and they dunked chocolate biscuits with abandon.
"How do you think you'll get on tomorrow?" asked Joey in between soggy mouthfuls of chocolate goodness.
"No idea. My brief said he would make them think it was all a mistake, that I never intended to walk out with those tops. If the worst comes to the worst, he said that he'd say I was out of my head on gear and I had no idea what I was doing."
"Sounds daft to me."
"And me, but you know Judges, they swallow stuff quicker than a hooker down the Monto."
Joey laughed which made tea snort out his nose.
"You're a mad bastard, you know that," said Joey, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.
"Turning up looking like this won't help," said the skinny addict sorrowfully while looking down at his tatty tracksuit.
"Don't you have a suit or something?"
"My butler left it in for dry cleaning," snipped Scobie, putting on a snooty accent.
"I might have a shirt and pants somewhere."
"You don't have to do that, you've been too good already," said Scobie. At that moment the washing machine decided to rev up into a spin cycle causing them to raise their voices.
"I'm only loaning them to you, I want them back,"
"You're a diamond," said Scobie as Joey laid his mug down and padded away toward his bedroom. It was getting a bit chilly so before looking for the shirt and things Joey searched for a clean tee-shirt to wear. He was looking in his drawers when he heard Scobie say something from the sitting room.
"What did you say?" he yelled.
"Shoes! Could you give me shoes?"
"Hold your horses, I'm looking."
In the wardrobe he found a shirt which had had gotten for a wedding years back, but there was no sign of the pants that went with it. Eventually he found a pair of grey trousers he had used in school and they would have to do the job. They were both far too big for Scobie but he could put a belt on the pants at least. Joey walked out of his room and found Scobie shuffling around the kitchen. He seemed jumpy as he shuffled from one foot to another. The jitters were back, and Scobie was starting to chew on his tongue. Joey knew Scobie was on the way down, and coming down fast.
"Yea all right Scobe?"
"Yea, yea. Just... yea know," he said, wiping invisible lint repetitively from his arms and shoulders while dancing from one foot to the other.
"Yea, guess I do. Here, these should do the job," Joey said handing over the small bundle of clothes. "Do you want a bag?"
"Na, I've taken too much already. You're the best," he said, holding the folded clothes carefully in his arms and moving toward the front door.
"You can hang here for a while if you want," said Joey, feeling sorry for his buddy.
"Got to see a man about a dog, yea know the story," said Scobie. Joey knew exactly the story, Scobie needed to score. He followed down the hall and watched the skinny boy scrabble to unlock the front door and release the door chain. He was no sooner on the landing than he was steaming for the stairs. Joey stood at the door and watched his friend leave.
"Let me know how tomorrow goes?" he called after him.
"I will," he shouted over his shoulder with a wave and vanished around the corner.
Joey closed the door and went back into the kitchen. The washing machine had finished so he took out the damp clothes and hung them on the dryer standing in the corner of the sitting room. Joey felt uneasy, as if something was out of kilter, but that was hardly surprising after what he had been though earlier. He looked at the TV unit and knew he had to check on the bag, just to be sure. It was like turning off the iron and leaving the house, how many times do people go back again and again to check even though they know the iron is off.
He crouched and opened the door. The corner of the rucksack peaked out from beneath the scattered DVD covers. Joey prodded the bag and felt the bulk of the package inside. As his fingers rested on the deadly bulge he knew as soon as he was rid of the stuff he was going to put as much distance between himself and the Kingstons as possible. He felt dirty, contaminated by everything. He needed a shower. As he stood under the gushing water, he knew he was in trouble and that trouble was coming sooner or later. The water was just starting to turn cold when his phone rang. Joey jumped out of the shower and grabbed the thing with wet hands from the back of the toilet cistern and pressed the answer button.