The snow was falling faster, too fast for the wipers, banking up and whiting out the scene, second by second.
It was a white world of misery, freezing cold, ice and terror. I gripped the steering wheel tighter than tight, but couldn’t fight the feeling of the car sliding once again on the freshly mounting snow, and knew in my heart that it was hopeless.
What on earth could I do now, except plough on, and keep remembering the words my ex-girlfriend had said this morning?
“We have to break up, Brian.”
“Because I’ve had enough of you.”
“Because you’re boring! I’m sorry, Brian, but you bore me witless. Nothing ever happens in your predictable tedious life! After all, I’m an actress and I’ve got a really bubbly personality, haven’t I? So I need a guy who’s got a bit of a sparkle, a bit of pizazz, not some boring old fart like you!”
Trying to forget my misery was why I was taking the B roads to Manchester rather than the motorway. I thought the quieter, smaller roads would be more interesting, more things to occupy my mind than the bland old boring motorway. The motorway that was boring. As boring as I was.
In my misery I hadn’t realised that the weather forecast was so bad. Snow had been forecast this morning, but this blizzard was out of the blue.
And then, that was it.
As I tried to brake again, the car just slithered sideways, a law to itself, and floated along the road to rest against a tree, the front wheels spinning in the snow, uselessly.
What do to now? If I stayed in the car I would undoubtedly freeze to death, for the heater wouldn’t work without the engine, and the engine would soon stop.
So I managed to grab my rucksack and clambered out into the snowdrift, falling immediately into the whiteness, the snow having engulfed my shoes instantly. I floundered to the surface, and managed to stumble forwards, hoping to see a house, or a car, or anything. But there was nothing but the world of terrifying whiteness and darkness as far as you could see.
Then a large white van passed by and zig-zagged to a stop in front of me, churning up a mass of sludge. The doors opened and three men climbed out. Two of them were in some kind of dark uniform. The third, a very tall, powerful looking character, wore a green anorak, and one of the men was unfastening the handcuffs on his wrists.
“Hey?” I called out.
“Hello mate,” one of the uniformed men called out as he turned and gave me a cheery smile and a wave. “We’ve picked a right good night to move our prisoner to Manchester, eh? I bet you wished you were still in Birmingham, don’t you Charlie?” he directed the last to the tall guy.
“Makes no odds to me, Bill,” the recently handcuffed man replied to his guard, rubbing his wrists enthusiastically and blowing on his fingers. “Bit of an adventure ain’t it? Now all I’ve got to do is overpower you two lads and do a runner, then I’m a free man.”
“Aye and you’d run a right long way in this lot wouldn’t you? And you’d likely end up flat on your arse in a snowdrift. Besides, Charlie, you love us, don’t you? You wouldn’t want to go and land us in trouble with the governors, now would you?”
Bill turned towards me, still grinning. “Take no notice of us, mate, having a laugh is how we cope with stress. Now tell me lad,” he changed the subject. “Are you as lost as we are?”
“Yes, I’m truly fucked,” I told him, using my phone as a torch, its pathetic shaft of whiteness hardly noticeable. “And there’s no phone signal.”
He clapped a hand against my arm, breathy smoke billowing out with his words. “John reckons there’s a village just round the next bend. We’ll see you right, lad.”
Sure enough after a few hundred yards of trudging through the snowdrift, once we’d turned around a bend we could see a light in the distance.
“That’ll be the Dog and Duck pub,” said John, the other prison officer. “Landlord and his wife lives on the premises, so they’ll open up for us. By heck I never expected the day to end up like this.”
“Aye, but it’s one way to avoid the wife’s nagging,” Bill joked.
“Lucky bugger to have a wife,” replied the big prisoner. “Reckon I had one of them once, can’t remember what happened to her.”
“You’d lose owt, you would, you daft beggar!”
They were all smiling. Bill and John seemed to like their prisoner, indeed the trio seemed as if they were fiends out for the night, enjoying themselves, if such a thing was possible in the circumstances.
Eventually we reached the old inn, and I was never so grateful as to enter the place and feel the first warmth of the day. The landlord and his wife, who introduced themselves as Hector and Melanie, were friendly and kind, and they scurried around, taking our coats, offering to dry our socks and bring us hot drinks, and make us food. Hector was all sympathy and smiles, while Melanie exuded a motherly charm and I liked them both immensely.
I was settled in the main bar area, which was comfortable, with deep cushiony armchairs, thick carpets, bright lights and horse brasses on the walls, and colourful framed paintings of country scenes. Best of all was the roaring log fire on the opposite wall, where I chose a seat. Bill and John joined me and settled down too, while we waited for Hector’s food and drinks.
“Did you recognise him?” Bill asked me earnestly, leaning closer and looking towards the door.
“Who?” I replied.
“Our prisoner. We’re taking him to another gaff up north. Do you not know who he is then?”
“No, should I?”
“Well, he’s been pictured in all the papers and on TV. The thing is, whatever you might have heard about Charlie Evans, I’m telling you, you’ve got nowt to worry about.”
“Why would I worry?”
The prison officer stretched his legs out and rubbed his hands together, relaxing in the seat. “Because Charlie Evans is one of the most prolific contract killers of all time. He’ll never be a free man, but luckily he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t complain, just makes the best of things. Believe you me, everyone loves our Charlie, he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Really?” I said, aghast.
“Aye,” agreed the other guard, John. “But as Bill says, you’re not to worry, that’s why we took off his handcuffs, even though it’s against the rules. He’ll not let us down, not our mate. Charlie is the nicest, most agreeable guy you could wish to meet.”
“But you said he’s a killer.”
“Aye, but he’s a professional killer, not like some of these sadistic amateurs, who go around hurting people. Look at it this way.” He leaned even closer, keeping his voice confidential, not wanting Charlie to walk into the room and overhear. “He joined the army at 18, was recruited to special forces where they trained him to kill a man with his bare hands. In various wars he’s killed plenty of ordinary soldiers, and of course back then he was a national hero. Afterwards, when he was in civvy street, he found he could get paid for killing the scum of the earth – despicable monsters who had lots of enemies who paid a stack of cash to have them killed. That’s when he stopped being a hero and became an evil killer and they locked him up for the rest of his natural. So is he a hero or a villain? You tell me.”
“It’s true,” agreed Bill. “Some of the criminals he offed, well, they were the worst of the worst. He more or less did a public service. I reckon he should have got a knighthood.”
Charlie came back into the room, moaning that he’d heard on the radio that football matches were being cancelled at the weekend, and then began chatting away to us about all and sundry.
After we’d eaten, there was a noise outside, and a young woman of around thirty entered the room, who introduced herself as Marilyn. She had just one suitcase, was small and dainty and pretty, and she was crying. Hector’s wife had her arm around the newcomer, talking comfortingly to her. “You’re okay now, love, you’re safe. You can rest up here and in the morning you can carry on with your journey.”
She sat down at the end of the room, furthest from the fire, still crying.
“Excuse me, I don’t want to pry, but why are you so upset?” I moved closer after a while when she was settled. “Is there anything we can do to help you?”
“No, no one can help me,” she told me miserably. “I’ve lost my one and only chance to get away.”
“Get away from who?” I asked her.
“My husband. Terry Conroy.”
I saw the others look up and listen to our conversation.
“Haven’t you heard of him? He runs the biggest criminal enterprise in South London, and I married him four years ago, before I knew what I was getting into. My escape has been planned for nearly a year now. I was waiting until Terry was away on business, so the moment he’d left the house I started out to drive to Manchester airport to get the flight to Canada to go to my sister. It had to be an airport a long way from home, in case someone recognised me and told Terry. It was my one chance to get away from all the madness.”
She sighed, looking at me as if I was stupid. “You don’t know what it’s like, do you? See, I’m a trophy wife. I’m not Marilyn the woman, a person in her own right. I have no life of my own. I can’t have friends, I can’t have hobbies or a job, daren’t even have kids, because he’s want full control over them. I can’t even go out on my own unless I’m with his minders. Even in the local shops they give me the goods and won’t take money, and I’m treated like some kind of pariah because of who I’m married to. I’m in a prison. A prison without bars.”
“But why do you have to escape?” I went on. “Why can’t you just get divorced?”
She raised here eyebrows in exasperation. “Terry has to be seen to be perfect, so that he’s respected. Divorce would be a humiliation for him, and Terry won’t have that. Terry’s always said to me that the only way I’d ever leave him was in a wooden box, and it’s true. He’s got top police on his books, he can literally do murder and get away with it. And now that I’ve missed the plane, he’ll know I’ve gone and he’ll get me back. And he’ll punish me.”
I noticed that Charlie was watching her carefully, his eyes full of sympathy.
There was a long, stunned silence.
“She’s right.” Charlie broke the silence eventually. “Everyone’s heard of Terry Conroy. He can do whatever he wants, and no one can stop him.”
“But it can’t be right,” I protested. “How can he keep her against her will?”
“By killing her if she tries to leave,” Charlie told me. “Did you know that the sixties’ gangster Reggie Kray’s first wife, Frances, committed suicide? She hated him, wanted to leave him, but she knew she couldn’t. So she ended it the only way she could. And now the fucker’s got himself buried beside her, so she can’t get away from him, even in death.”
There wasn’t much else to say.
“First crime I ever committed as a little boy,” Charlie began, talking to no one in particular, “was breaking into our neighbour’s house. See, I knew he kept this little blackbird in a cage, and I hated to think of the poor trapped creature. So I smashed the window, nicked the bird in the cage and set it free in the garden. I never forgot how it felt to see that little bird flying up into the sky. It was the most wonderful feeling of my life.”
A couple of hours later we’d all eaten and just wanted to sleep. Hector, managed to find bedding for all of us, and we slept on the floor. I was so tired I didn’t even care about the discomfort, the freezing cold of the day and all that had happened, and I was buried into oblivion for a few hours.
Next day, I was awake early. And to my amazement, the sun was shining, and when I looked out of the window to see that the roads looked clear, and I realised we’d all be able to go on our way.
I approached Marilyn, who was in the lounge bar, curled up on a bar stool, hunched over her mug of tea, as miserable as ever.
“Surely, you can just get another flight to Canada, can’t you?” I asked her.
“I’m hoping so. Trouble is, by now he’ll be missing me, and sending people out to find me. Getting another flight quickly is my only hope.”
At that moment, there was a commotion outside, and a very tall thick-set man with slicked-back silver hair and a smart dark suit charged into the room. His black leather shoes were so polished that they sparkled like fire.
“Thought you could get away from me, did you, you stupid cow?” he yelled, pushing me out of the way and grabbing Marilyn by her hair and yanking so hard that she screamed. “Didn’t you realise the car has a tracking device on it?” He gave a cruel burst of laughter. “Are you fucking thick or something, Marly? I told you! The only fucking way you’ll ever leave me is in a box. Got it?”
She cowered away from him. He moved towards her and slapped her face hard, so hard that the slap rang out across the room. Terry Conroy stepped back again and stared at her, watching her sob as he smiled to himself. “That’s just a little taste of what’s gonna happen when I get you home!” His eyes were alight with sadistic glee. “Come on, you slag! We’re leaving now, forget that car I bought you, I’ll send someone to fetch it, you’re coming back with me in the Bentley.”
He stepped forward to grab her arm, but before he’d closed the gap, I saw Charlie step into the room and run across. For such a big man he was surprisingly light on his feet.
In seconds, Charlie had taken hold of Terry’s head and twisted it sharply sideways, and there was a loud cracking sound. Terry suddenly became motionless and was held in Charlie’s arms, like a broken marionette. Charlie let him slip slowly to the ground. Then he bent down and touched a hand against his neck and nodded solemnly. “Lovely job. Just like the old days when I was in the mob.”
“Bloody hell!” Bill had come into the room and witnessed what had happened. He was ashen-faced, his mobile in his hand. “Fuck it, Charlie, what have you gone and done now?”
“I’ve set another little bird free, that’s what I’ve done.” He walked towards Marilyn, who was staring, dumbfounded, shock and fear frozen into her features. He crouched down in front of her. “It’s over love. Your life’s your own, and you can do whatever you want.”
And the hand that had just efficiently killed a man, touched her gently on the cheek. “Be happy, love, that’s my present to you.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. “But you’ve killed him. What’s going to happen to you?”
He smiled. “You know what? They just might send me to prison for the rest of my life.”
(image courtesy of Michal Dziekonski from Pixabay)