Issue 5

Trevor Byrne
Nothing at the Top

It’s half eleven. Three hours ago Tommy killed a copper by the name of Stephen Burke. He’s holding the gun in his hand, and it’s still warm. It makes no sense that the gun should still be warm.
          Aidan is sitting across from Tommy at the kitchen table, drumming his fingers on a folded newspaper. Aidan’s face is thin and drawn, the high cheekbones somewhere between handsome and cadaverous. It’s late and there’s no sound from the estate outside. A Liverpool FC calendar on the door shows the wrong month. The rings are glowing on the cooker behind Aidan and the blinds are drawn against the winter night but the kitchen’s still damp, still cold.
          —You OK? says Aidan. He places his hands flat on the newspaper and looks at the gun in Tommy’s hands. —Yer makin me fuckin nervous.
          —I’m grand, says Tommy, although he isn’t sure he is. He feels like he’s coming down, like he’s been popping pills and now he’s paying for it, that otherworldly melancholy that settles on you as you trek back to the world. It seems like days ago, not hours, that he’d been in line at the dole office, worrying about his sister Sinead’s labour in the Rotunda Hospital. He was thinking of picking something up for her new baby with his dole money, though he wasn’t sure what. A bear or something, something cheap. Then his phone buzzed. It was Marlo. Tonight, Marlo said, be there at half eight, and a bad acid feeling pulsed through him. He’d hoped that Marlo and his crew had been winding them up, that all this stuff about killing the copper was a trick, part of a punishment for losing Marlo’s cocaine. But a few minutes later Tommy was on a bus home, mulling over the impossible knowledge that later that night Aidan would be a killer, a murderer, and Tommy would be an accomplice. It had never occurred to him on that bus journey that it would be him and not Aidan who would be the one.
          —How’s yer sister? says Aidan. —She had the baby yet?
          Tommy knows Aidan’s trying to keep himself calm.
          —Don’t think so, says Tommy. —Could of I suppose.
          Even after weeks of discussing it, of planning it, of meetings with Marlo’s cronies in pub corners, Aidan seems unable to comprehend the fact that they’d done it. Or that he’d panicked and fucked up and Tommy had done it for him. Aidan had calmed down in the past hour but now he was getting twitchy again, and it was the last thing Tommy needed. It was easy to understand, though. It should have been straightforward enough, or as straightforward as a hit could be, but it had been a shambles: they’d walked in on Stephen Burke’s surprise birthday party, the place was packed with armed coppers and off-duty detectives.
          Aidan unfolds the newspaper, opens it, flips quickly through the pages, shakes his head, and closes it again.
          —What are the chances, Tommy? he says. —I mean, seriously, what are the fuckin chances?
          —Three hundred and sixty five to one, I suppose, says Tommy.
          —Should’ve put a few quid on ourselves so, says Aidan. —Made a few quid while we were fuckin up our lives.
          Tommy closes his eyes and slips the gun into his jacket pocket. It seems to be getting heavier and hotter.
          Marlo’s orders were to shoot Stephen Burke dead in his father’s pub. Make a statement he said; no one messes with Marlo. And of course, it was a punishment as well; Tommy and Aidan were paying for their mate Ed Walsh’s mistake.
          —What are the chances? says Aidan again. He looks round the kitchen, as though the answer might be there, tacked to the wall amongst the peeling wallpaper and the Jimi and Che posters.
          —It was just luck, says Tommy.
          It was true, that was all it was, luck. That’s the way things happened. You made your plans and if you were lucky they worked out, your sister’s baby was OK, the girl you were into was into you, you made it to university and university made you in return. It was just luck that they’d stumbled into Stephen Burke’s surprise birthday party, and luck that Burke had busted Ed Walsh in the first place with a load of Marlo’s cocaine, costing Marlo a small fortune and landing Ed with twelve years in prison. A fluke, an accident.
          Tommy has no illusions, he knows exactly what he is; he’s small time, a pushed-around pusher halfway to becoming an addict. You have to be honest with yourself. He’s supposed to be Sinead’s baby’s godfather. He hopes everything’s all right. Sinead said that she’d call the baby Thomas if it was a boy, after him, or Eileen if it’s a girl, after their mother. He thinks about texting her but he knows Aidan won’t approve.
          He wants a drink. It works for comedowns and it’ll work for this, drink your way back.
          Aidan reaches into his pocket and takes out a packet of cigarettes and a box of matches. He’s smiling again, the mad jack-in-the-box. He’s always been this way, full of bluster and bonhomie one minute and then muttering about spies and turncoats and pricks with eyes on his bird the next.
          —Actually, speakin of odds, says Aidan, nodding. —I put a fifty quid bet on this mornin, for AC Milan to win and Ronaldinho to score their first goal. Got deadly odds. And what happens? Ronaldinho gets injured and Milan get hammered three one. Against bleedin Livorno.
          Tommy knows that in a week or two, when the rent is due, Aidan will be short. Tommy watches him, his hand on the gun in his pocket, feeling its angles, its heat.
          —Who the fuck are Livorno? he says.
          —Exactly, says Aidan, shaking his head. —No one. Fuckin nobodies.

In the weeks before the hit, Tommy had thought he was fucked, dead; that Marlo would have one of his mates put a bullet in him and dump him in the Royal Canal. Instead, Aidan and Tommy had been told they were going to kill Garda Stephen Burke, which didn’t seem all that much better. They’d been shown photographs of Burke and they’d watched footage of him filmed from pubs and bedroom windows with cameras and mobile phones. They were given a video cassette case with a gun in it.
          I want a fuckin statement, Marlo said.
          He was punishing them and Garda Burke in one swoop.
          It had occurred to Tommy to hop on the next Ryanair flight to Spain or Portugal but he knew it wasn’t worth it, that he’d be found. Marlo was prepared to have a garda killed, the toast of the town, the poster boy for young gardai, and he wouldn’t have any problem bumping off two nobodies, two Livornos. Ed Walsh wouldn’t have been safe in prison, either; Marlo had made that clear as well. Ed was getting a severe hiding one way or the other, but if Tommy and Aidan made Marlo’s statement, that might be all that happened to him.
          Days passed and the phone call came.
          Tonight, said Marlo. You do it tonight. And that was only eight hours ago.

So they had no choice. Tommy left the dole office and went home, picked up the gun. He rang Aidan and sat alone in the house. A couple hours later Aidan arrived, half drunk. Tommy downed a couple of whiskeys with Aidan at the kitchen table, the one he was sitting at now, then lifted a Fiat with a dodgy exhaust and a tape deck that didn’t work. Aidan was disappointed that he couldn’t play his Lou Reed compilation tape. Tommy drove and Aidan sat on the passenger side, staring out the window, not saying much. He had a scar under his right eye, very faint, from a fall when they were kids, and he touched it absentmindedly. The car shuddered onwards.
          Twenty minutes later they unclasped their seat belts and Aidan spat a fat wad of phlegm through the open window and they stepped into the cold. Aiden took out the gun and switched the safety off and returned it to his jacket pocket. Tommy wondered why he’d worn the new Adidas runners he’d bought last week; they were too shiny and white. That was the working class for you, he thought, always eager to dress up for a night out. He was sweating. Aidan pulled the balaclava over his head, adjusting it so only his nose and mouth showed. Tommy was breathing hard and he could taste the whiskey again.
          —Put yer fuckin balaclava on, said Aidan, shaking his head.
          They were on a quiet street. There was a takeaway over the road, with a girl looking up at the menu on the wall like some improbable passenger checking departure times. Tommy took the mask from his jacket and pulled it over his head. It was itchy and he wanted to pull it off.
          Tommy followed Aidan to the entrance. He seemed determined, Aidan, like he wanted to get things over with, but then he accidentally kicked over a plant pot filled with damp cigarette butts and swore, and the old Aidan was back. They looked at each other, and then Aidan shoved the door and they fell from the gloom of the street into the small, packed pub. For a long second everything was both surreal and utterly calm – Tommy saw the room, the balloons tied in bunches to the exposed beams, people in fours and fives around the tables turning and noticing him, still uncomprehending, and a banner above the fireplace and underneath it, Stephen himself, a young man, younger in real life, wearing a yellow party hat. Gunshots ripped through the air. They were being fired at. Tables tipped and splinters flew from the panelling on the wall behind them. A light bulb popped. Aidan ran past Tommy towards the door with his hands over his head, dropping the gun. The sound of the gunshots was immense. Stephen Burke was crouching behind a table. All Tommy could see was the yellow party hat and a part of Burke’s head. He picked up the gun, its heat spreading though the small bones of his hand. Tommy squeezed the trigger. A neat section of Burke’s head disappeared, along with the side of his party hat, and he flopped bonelessly behind the table.

Aidan fills the kettle and switches it on.
          —It’s too cold in here, he says.
          Tommy says nothing.
          —A surprise party, says Aidan. —Yeh couldn’t fuckin write that, could yeh? What are the chances?
          Tommy stands up.
          —I’m goin the jacks, he says.
          Tommy walks across the hall in the dark, pushes open the door to the bathroom without turning on the light. He unzips and pisses and washes his hands and dries them. He stands in the darkness for a while. His mobile rings. It’s his mother. He sits on the edge of the bath and listens, nodding, then says goodbye.
          He heads back to the kitchen.
          Aidan looks up.
          —You on the phone? he says.
          —Yeah, me ma, says Tommy.
          —Any news about Sinead?
          —She had a boy.
          Aidan nods, then smiles. —Sound. Another little Tommy, so?
          But Tommy’s just found out that Sinead’s baby has Down’s syndrome. That’s the news. They didn’t know at first, the doctors or Sinead, his mother had said, it’s not obvious. They could’ve found out beforehand but Sinead didn’t want any tests, she was convinced everything would be fine. He’s beautiful, though, said his mother. Tommy, he’s gorgeous.
          —Just give me a minute, says Tommy.
          Tommy goes upstairs to his bedroom and takes the gun out of his pocket. He wipes it and takes it apart and uses a rag to clean the inner workings, and then he reassembles it. It’s still warm. He pries up the loose floorboard and a faint breath of cold air wafts up.
          The phone rings in the hall downstairs. He stashes the gun and replaces the floorboard and lets the phone ring out. It's started to rain again. He sits on the edge of his bed.
          Aidan comes in.
          —Yeh ready? he says.
          —Just give me a minute.
          Aidan leaves. Tommy closes his eyes and lies on the bed. He wants to sleep but he knows that he won't. If he was able to sleep now he wouldn't wake till tomorrow, till the weekend. He lies and listens to the wind and the rain sweep through the estate, and he feels like his life isn't his own. He squats down beside the bed and jimmies the floorboard free again, and looks at the still warm gun in his hand. Rain spatters the window. It makes no sense that the gun should still be warm.