Creative Writing Ink May Competition Winner

Black Jack

Rob Tye

The old man scowled at the insistent shrill from the doorbell. Mr Bishop shuffled to the front door, grumbling all the way along the filth-ridden carpet. His hand shook as he reached for the latch. A young woman, with an annoying smile and a bunch of sorry-looking white flowers, stood grinning at him. Her nose wrinkled at the smell from the hallway.

“Delivery. Seems it’s your lucky day, luv,” the woman said.

He glanced at the floral company badge on her breast pocket, with the same inane grin in her photo. She had her hair scraped back in a tidy bun but wore too much make-up for his liking, with long, bright fingernails. The skin on her arms glowed white in the midday sun. Perhaps the make-up was to cover up her washed-out complexion. He paused, remembering that pasty colour on his own skin, gained from years without sunshine, a lifetime ago. Mr Bishop shivered at the thought. How long had it been?

“But I don’t know anyone who would send me flowers.” The tremor in his voice betrayed his suspicion.

“Well, there’s no card so you must have a secret admirer.”

She thrust the flowers towards him to prove it and the old man peered into the bouquet. A trace of happiness twinkled in his eyes. “I suppose so. How lovely. It’s been ages since I had any flowers. No one comes to visit anymore.”

The woman leaned closer; the waft of cheap perfume overpowered the flowers. “I tell you what. I’m not supposed to, but how about I help you cut and arrange them in a vase for you?”

The elderly man beamed, showing the gaps in his yellow teeth. “Would you? That is kind. I could make us a nice cup of tea.”

“Oh, now you’re talking. I’d kill for a brew,” the woman said.

She stepped inside and eased the door shut behind her, following the man along the hallway of his bungalow. She glimpsed the front page of the local newspaper on the floor. The ‘Black Jack’ had struck again in a nearby street. The fifth assault had occurred in as many weeks, each after pension day, all ferocious in nature. Pensioners were warned to be wary of door-to door sellers. The assailant preyed on those hard of sight and descriptions varied. Only one peculiar memory remained after the beatings. They all said they had seen a black jack.

The woman busied herself on the dirty, metal draining board, filling a glass vase, cutting the flower stems and fixing them in a haphazard presentation.

“How’s that then?” she asked.

Mr Bishop looked at the arrangement, frowned then glanced away. He stared at the single teabag swirling in the pot. He had used it once already but there was life in it yet. He whizzed the spoon round, tapping the edge several times.

“Lovely. Just lovely,” he said. “I just need to get some more sugar from the larder.”

He scuffed his feet along the lino in the kitchen, taking an age to reach the small side-room. He edged inside and the door crept to a half-close behind him.

The woman peeked over her shoulder at the door and then dashed from her seat to a small corner table. She grabbed his tatty leather wallet, fingered through the coupons until she found a grubby ten-pound note and then tutted at the poor haul. She stuffed the note into her pocket. As she withdrew her hand, a blackjack sweet wrapper drifted to the floor.

Mr Bishop’s beady-eye watched her through the gap in the door then slipped out of sight when she retook her seat.

“Here we are,” he said. He crossed to the grubby worktop and fumbled with two cups and the milk jug. “Milk and sugar?”

“Mm, one please.”

He smiled as a shaky hand dipped the spoon into the steel tub. “I’m all fingers and thumbs these days.” He took care not to spill any as he placed the cups on the table in front of the girl.

“Oh, I bet you wowed them in your day though, hey?” the woman asked.

A cheeky glint shone in his eye. He stared at his cup, mind drifting, smile appearing. He chuckled. “I kept up with the best of them, I guess.”

The woman blew her tea and took a sip.

He nodded, remembering those days. “Of course, back then people treated me a bit differently.”

“Really,” she said. She touched her collar, pulling it from her neck and giving a light cough. “How so?”

“Well, you see, I made a reputation for myself. A good one too. Afterwards, for many years in fact, they finally showed me some damn respect.”

She raised her eyebrows in surprise, but also because of the tightness in her chest. The fire grew from within. Sharp, stabbing pains swelled in her stomach. She winced and tried to cough but choked on the acrid bile in her mouth. Tears filled her blood-shot eyes, streaming down her hot, flushed cheeks.

The woman clawed at her throat, desperate to rid herself of the torment. She glared at the teacup and then to the old man, realisation shining in her eyes before she convulsed and slid to the floor.

Mr Bishop picked up the cup and stepped toward the sink then stopped. He bent to the floor and picked up his ten-pound note that had spilled from her pocket. The woman managed the briefest of frowns when he stood up straight and walked with ease to his wallet on the table. Gone were the shuffle, the hunch, and the shaky hands. He rested the cup beside his wallet and replaced his money.

He glanced back at the terrified, white-eyed stare from the woman, shaking in violent spasms on the floor. Then he grinned. The old man looked fifteen years younger as he retook his seat. He watched her with bright, intelligent eyes, enjoying her pain.

The young woman lunged at his legs, but her strength left her and she collapsed.

“Well that was pointless,” he said. “It’s about as pointless as the police searching for the untraceable toxin that is racing round your body right now. Oh, they’ll search, all right, but they won’t try too hard to find it. Not for someone like you. And I’m very good at covering my tracks. At least I was until ‘sixty-eight when circumstances beyond my control screwed up everything. By then, I had administered twelve lethal doses without the police getting a sniff.

“Oh, don’t you try and fight it. You’ll just make more of a mess on my floor. You’ll find the pain eases somewhat if you relax.

“Where was I? Oh yes, well, the short of it is I was interrupted on unlucky thirteen and had to use a knife. It’s ironic that the police never found my stash, so I did my time only for manslaughter. Since then, I’ve cherished my freedom and I’ve no intention of letting scum like you take it away from me. I’ll call them in a moment, say you had a seizure. Perhaps you had an unknown heart-condition.”

The woman’s thrashing eased and the rasping sounds faded, replaced by the ticking from the clock on the shelf.

Then the doorbell rang.

“Christ. What now?”

Mr Bishop glanced around the room then grabbed the woman’s arms and dragged her into the larder. He covered her limp body with an empty sack.

The bell rang again.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” he said. He resumed his shuffling act, creeping toward the front door. The instant his shaky hand clicked back the latch, a hefty woman with stubby black hair, charged into the hallway. She slammed the door closed behind him, grabbed the frail Mr Bishop round the throat and thrust him against the wall.

“Give me all your money. Do it now or I’ll rip your throat out,” the woman growled.

Mr Bishop recoiled in horror when he saw the tattoo of the jack of spades on the woman’s forearm. His eyes flashed to the kitchen, realising his mistake.

A fist smacked into his cheek, cracking his head back into the wall.

“Now!”

“I-um… It’s… It’s in the kitchen.”

“Show me,” the big woman said.

She thrust the old man along the hall. He collided into the dividing door and his legs buckled. A strong hand grabbed his collar and dragged the whimpering man into the kitchen, blood trickling down his bruised cheek. He pointed to his wallet on the table. She ripped the note from its folds and then saw the girl’s half-full cup of tea.

She gave a cold chuckle. “Perfect. I’m gasping.”

The woman took a long gulp and clattered the cup onto the table, wiping a drip from her chin.

“You soon will be,” Mr Bishop said with a painful smile.

“What did you say?”

The woman coughed, touching her throat at the burning sensation.

Mr Bishop waited until she had stopped moving. He glanced from the limp body on the floor to the rough outline under the sack in the pantry and frowned. It felt like before. Circumstances beyond his control were against him, but he would be damned if they were going to put him back inside.

That night, a battered Ford crept into a deserted car park on the edge of Wimbledon Common. The car crunched across the gravel, cautious and watchful. It stopped at the tree line and reversed, but it took an age for the old man to be satisfied before stepping out.

Sharp eyes reflected glints of light from the distant street lamp then the man scurried to the rear of the car and flicked open the boot.

He heaved against the heavy sacks, dragging them from the car, and then rolled them down the slope to the stream below. A last glance around and then he slipped behind the wheel of the Ford and pulled out of the car park.

High on the street lamp, a recently installed CCTV camera caught the licence plate of the car as it disappeared into the gloomy night.

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