Sunday 13th December 2003
It was freezing cold; a premonition of the upcoming days. The sea was grey, almost silvery, lined with the white horses of foam that galloped their way across the shingle and dissolved into the sand. The sky was pallid with blotted clouds, like dampened paper. Howard stood on the balcony, shivering despite the thick brown jumper he was wearing, and breathed the chilled air into his nostrils. It opened him up from the inside like a window, and he felt receptive. Vince was in the other room, changing into the new jeans he'd ordered off some website that Howard had never heard of. It was refreshing, even after a month, to see his lover enjoying the money that they had stolen. Vince revelled in it, practically buying himself a whole new wardrobe and the most expensive hair products money could buy off Howard's debit card, not to mention the other expensive gadgets that his other half normally wouldn't normally invest in. It was refreshing after so long, to see someone enjoying the fruits of robbery in his home. Even still, nothing could quench the rush of love Howard felt whenever he walked into a room and the other man was curled up on a sofa wearing a stolen and oversized shirt like a puppet.
Howard still remembered driving home after that eventful night: the orange lights that flickered over Vince's face as they passed into the lights overlooking the darkened motorway. The panic he had felt as he clumsily tapped out the number of Ray's mobile into his landline and the flood of relief when he was answered. The ensuing conversation:
"Ray! Oh, Jesus Christ…"
"Howard? Fucking hell…hey, Ken! Ken! It's Howard! The bastard's alive! What the fuck happened, Moon? We thought you'd been shot; the kid too!"
"I dodged a bullet, fell down the stairs. Vince panicked and took me back to his flat."
"We were waiting for ten minutes; we thought you were dead!"
"No, no…I thought you were dead! I'm so glad you're ok. What happened to you?"
"We had to hotwire a bloody Nissan! We came back here. I've been calling you all afternoon!"
"Dropped my phone…Oh, God…"
The way both of them had sunk gratefully into bed and slept instantly, in their clothes, and waking up to find his arms wrapped around Vince's chest and a feathery head against his own.
They were alright now, for the most part. Vince had spent the ensuing week barely leaving Howard's side. He would just quietly sit in a corner, watching him. Aside from that, for the most part, things had returned to normal. Howard sometimes wondered how this strange, fascinating, stunning man had decided to end up with an ordinary, jazz-loving secretary like him. He'd put this question to Vince once, in a slowly cooling late-night moment. Vince had just laughed.
"In what kind of fucked-up world would you be normal, Howard?"
After some careful consideration, Howard had concluded that it was a fair enough statement.
There was some movement behind him as the little man joined him on the balcony. Howard cast an approving eye over the tight-fitting jeans, sleek and sunset-red; matched with a floaty, androgynous black lace top. Vince winked at him with a lined eye.
"Do you approve, Mr. Moon?"
"Oh, I do, Mr. Noir. I do very much. But you'd better not wear those out."
Vince smirked: "Yeah? Why's that then?"
"Don't want you running off with the first bastard that takes your fancy," Howard joked.
"Jealous git. You don't like people playing with your toys, do you? I bet the first bastard to take my fancy wouldn't rob banks."
There was a pause.
"And anyway, we never go out."
"I do take you out!"
"Bugger off. You keep saying it's dangerous."
"Alright!" Howard laughed. "I'll take you out this Friday."
Vince beamed. "Really?"
"I'll take you out for a posh dinner like a proper gangster's moll."
"You'd like that, would you? Alright. This Friday, I promise."
The younger man leant against the balcony, his legs at crooked angles, following Howard's intent gaze at the horizon. Below them, a seagull did a shit on the pavement.
"Lovely," Vince muttered wryly. Howard hummed in agreement. "Hey, Howard?"
"Are we ever gonna go back? Are we ever going to…" his voice lowered so that it was barely discernable above the rising wind. "Y'know. Rob banks again."
"I don't know. Why? Do you want to?"
"I dunno." Vince shuffled his feet against the rippled wood as if he were moonwalking. "I mean, sometimes I want to. Like, really want to. And then sometimes I just wanna stay here like an old person, with you. You're never going back, are you?"
Howard shook his head. "Sorry. I think I'm a bit old for that malarkey."
"You're only thirty-five!" Vince grinned, and punched Howard playfully on the arm. "Jagger's sixty and he's still the coolest man on the planet, so don't fish for compliments."
"You could do it all by yourself, I bet," Howard continued. "You and the boys could take a different place either side of the country at the same time and confuse the police. You'd never be caught. I could stay at home like an old man and perform marital duties."
Vince winked saucily. "I like the sound of that."
"I meant cooking and cleaning, you tart!"
"You love it, really."
"You'd be brilliant," Howard mused. "The best heist-man in London."
Vince shrugged. "Nah," he said. "It wouldn't be any fun without you."
"You soppy git. You mean it?"
Howard's head turned, and his eyes met Vince's. The young man nodded.
"Yeah, pretty much. We're Bonnie and Clyde, yeah?"
"You're ridiculous, you know that?"
"What about you? You used to be all tough and aggressive. Anyone pays you a compliment now you go as fuzzy as a warm kitten," Vince grinned. "What happened?"
"Eeurgh!" Vince laughed. "Who are you, the Clinton Cards man?"
"Shut up, you." Howard shook his head, endeared. "You want a sandwich?"
Vince pondered the question for a moment. "Yeah, go on then."
"Nutella and honey, white, no crusts?"
"You know me well, small eyes."
Howard rolled his eyes. "I never bought half this shit before. I'm amazed you're not obese, the amount of sugar you eat."
"I'll have you know I've gained tons of weight since I came here!"
Howard gazed disbelievingly at his lover's concave stomach and cocked an eyebrow. "You're about as fat as a skeleton on heroin!"
"I have!" Vince protested. "It's all your home cooking. I never ate so well at home. You said you saw my kitchen, there was nothing there."
"Yeah, yeah…" Howard was halfway through the glass doors. He turned back to his lover, who was still standing and gazing out to sea. "You coming?"
"I'll come down in a second," Vince replied, twisting his head with a smile. Howard nodded, and made his way downstairs to the kitchen. He poured himself a glass of orange juice from the fridge, shaking his head at all the rubbish Vince had piled in. Maybe he should stop sending the younger man out for food. The kitchen was clean, immaculately so. Howard's own doing, of course; Vince never deigned to help out with the housework. But, most of the time, Howard preferred still being able to have his house the way he liked it. Sure, there had never been so many shoes in his bedroom before, and the occasional dusty footprint found its way onto his prized Harrods sofa, but the odd means of domesticity they had going on worked for both of them. It had only been two months, but Howard could barely remember a time where Vince wasn't living wrapped tightly around him. Maybe he just didn't want to.
He prepared the meal, and called Vince downstairs. Soon enough, there was a bound and a clatter on the stairs as the man raced down it, as bouncy as any child. He grabbed the plate, and with a smile and a "Cheers, Howard," rushed off into the living room like a whirlwind to eat. Howard smiled at he watched him go. It was nice to have some energy in the place. He picked up his own food (ham and lettuce on wholemeal, thank you very much) and went to join him.
Vince was sitting on the sofa, his feet up, and he swung them off the pillows as Howard came into the room. He seemed to be missing the point of the plate; the sandwich balanced on his knee.
"Hey, Howard?" Vince asked after a moment, through a mouthful of thin sandwich. "You know how you always go on about how important planning is because you're boring?"
"Er, yes. I hope you're going somewhere with this…"
"I was just thinking…what if you hadn't planned as well as you had on the day we met?"
Howard frowned. "I don't quite follow, little man."
"I mean, like, you said the plan had always been to go back to yours, so I was thinking-"
"Oh, God, don't strain yourself!"
"Ha-ha," Vince said sarcastically. "I was wondering, y'know…what if you'd planned differently. What if you'd said you were going back to Ken's house instead? How different would things be?"
Howard opened his mouth to reply, but then quickly closed it. The truth was, he had entertained this same thought before, on occasion. He'd never entirely liked the outcome. What if, for example, they had gone back to Ken's? The bastard had a fucking massive second home in Manchester where they went for getaways instead of the shiny conspicuous flat he owned in Canary Wharf. Ken was a nice enough man, but got aggressive when he panicked. Vince would have been shot in five minutes: locked up in a dark cellar shitting himself. Howard liked to think that he would have intervened. But a small part of him knew that, had they gone back to Ken's, he would have happily left Ken to deal with the problem. He wouldn't have had any of that banter with the boy in his attic. If they had changed the plan, Vince would be dead.
The mere thought was like a boot to the stomach. He smiled reassuringly at the younger man.
"Don't worry. A strong man of action such as myself would have come to your aid."
"Piss off, Howard," Vince smirked, polishing off his sandwich.
Howard shook his head and picked up his book. Vince was, amazingly, respective and quiet. He played with a threat on his top. They sat there for a while, in silence as Howard scanned through his book with a keen eye and tried not to notice Vince pretending not to watch him read. He flicked through the pages slowly, purposely, and suppressed a smile when the blue eyes snapped up at the rustle of paper. One last word. Then he put the book down.
"That was a good book," he smiled. Vince glanced up at him.
"I've finished my book."
"Bout bloody time. You've been reading that since I got here!"
Howard decided not to mention that he barely remembered the name of the main character.
"I need to buy the next one now…"
Vince slammed a pillow against his face in exasperation. "Oh, Christy! Do you have to?"
"Well, what else do I have to fill up my Sundays with?"
Vince leapt up from the chair, and smiled seductively. He stepped casually over, and threw himself down on the sofa next to Howard, who was already blushing. He didn't even need to say anything; their lips met in mid air. They kissed lazily.
"You taste like honey," Howard mumbled after a moment. His lips were swollen.
"I don't like honey."
"So stop kissing me, then."
"Mm. No, I don't fancy that."
Vince pulled away; studied Howard's face intently. His mouth was flushed. "You need a shave."
Howard tentatively touched his face. "Really?"
"Yeah! First that moustache, now you're gettin' a beard!"
"What's wrong with my moustache?"
"Nothing's wrong with your - well, it is quite funny…"
"This is a good look, a strong look."
Vince laughed, and batted Howard's cheek gently. "Go and have a shave, Grizzly Adams. If your look gets any stronger they'll be able to pick you out of a line-up."
Howard couldn't find a good, normal disposable razor for a good ten minutes. His bathroom cabinet, which used to contain the most basic utensils arranged in height order, was now stocked to the brim with useless trinkets. It seemed Vince barely even bothered to put the lids back on things when he'd finished with them, and the once untarnished air was now fragranced with the faint aroma of hairspray. A pair of straighteners was warming by the side of the sink. The large bathtub, which Howard usually took great pride in, now was being used as a makeshift shelf for at least five different types of conditioner. He tentatively took a sniff of the brightest bottle, and his throat tightened in reflex as he breathed in the coconut smell that lingered in Vince's clothes.
He found one in the end, after almost causing an avalanche by moving a packet of facial wipes that was underneath it. It was electric; not one he was used to. He assumed it was Vince's, although Vince seemed so youthful that the thought of him needing to shave had never crossed his mind. Howard rummaged around, and found nothing. The sense of the thrumming electricity in his hand was strange, unnatural. He sometimes thought his life was so unbelievably fucked up that he cherished normality more than any other man. Not Vince, though. He never liked normal; found something exquisite about each dull artefact that found its way into his hands after queuing to be there. He'd found something in the Northerner, after all, and that was a rarity. Still. Howard knew he'd miss it, if it vanished. He knew that one never really appreciated things until they were gone, but he might as well try.
He shaved carefully around the mocha stain on his top lip, remembering with no particular fondness the day when he hadn't owned one. His hair was still as messy as it had been on that day, as frustrating as Vince found it, and he wore his glasses more often than not. He didn't think he was a different person, not entirely. He still listened to jazz and rarely wore anything than plain shirts – despite the beige trilby his partner had tried to get him interested in. He still worked in the same place and always bought the same wine from Sainsbury's. He still robbed banks.
Despite what he had said earlier, he wasn't sure he would ever entirely give it up. Not really.
Apart from anything else, he didn't reckon he would ever be able to meet up with Ken and Ray again without them taking the piss. He may have become demure and domestic in recent months, yes, but he had always been like that underneath and he was pretty sure that they'd been able to sense his growing reluctance in the last couple of years. Anyway, he wouldn't fully trust them taking Vince out on a heist alone.
Howard rubbed the shaving foam off his face and glanced at his face in the mirror – narrowly clean, the only remaining stubble smudged on his top lip. He looked respectable. Maybe Vince was right; looks were more important than he cared to admit.
The doorbell sounded, and the buzzing sound trembled through the house. Presently enough, a call of "I've got it" came up the stairs. Howard ran a hand through his hair, not disturbed by the noise. Whitstable was rife with religious zealots on a Sunday, and Vince had enough charm and tact to be able to deal with it. He casually thrust the razor back into the messy jumble of products in the cabinet, trying not to care when the force knocked over a few tablet boxes. He shut the door, and washed his hands in the sink.
Then he moved like silent lightning, throwing himself through the door and pelting across the cornflower-blue carpet of the hallway. When he got to the top of the stairs, he pressed himself against the wall and nudged his way slowly down the steps. He cursed himself mentally. His breathing was too fast, too erratic. Surely anybody would be able to hear his heart beating: it pummelled against his ribs, cracking them and turning the bone to splinters; it forced the blood up to scream in his ears. The crack of the gunshot that had just been fired had been a quiet sound, made muffled by the silencer that he'd had fitted – that was, if the gun fired had been his own.
He turned the corner of the steps, and gasped.
There was a spattering of red on his wall, the crimson dribbling stark and patriotic against the white. The red was dark, almost black, the droplets fat and wide and greedy as they raced towards the floor, and towards the body that lay there – the body being literal. For, where any man would expect to be a head, lay only a mangled mass of blood. Wide blue eyes gazed sightlessly out. Blood from the hole above the left eye had matted into midnight-black hair. The corpse – for it was a corpse, surely – was slumped heavily against the wall, a gun loosely held in the hand that dropped limply to the floor. Howard swallowed the bile that was swiftly rising in his throat, and took the next few stairs down. He turned towards the door.
Vince's arms were still outstretched. The faint plume of acrid smoke that rose from the butt of his weapon burrowed into Howard's nostrils. His blue eyes were wider than saucers, and were quickly filling with sharp tears that scratched his cheeks like fibreglass. His mouth was twisted, aghast. His whole body was trembling violently. The other man seemed just as horrified, but calmer, as he made his way over to the body and touched it with trembling hands.
"Cal? Calvin…? F-f-fuck…"
The man was young, too young for the body armour he was wearing, blonde hair showing where he hadn't put his helmet on. He stood up, and his face was twisted in anger.
He fumbled with the gun in his holster. White hot rage whipped through Howard's body and in a flurry of movement he flung himself down the stairs, snatched the gun out of the dead man's hand and held it to the young man's head. Before he knew what he was doing, he had pulled the trigger against the soft skin in the boy's neck. The gun quietly shuddered. The officer barely had time to whimper before he slumped to the ground, as still as his companion. Blood seeped into Howard's shirt. There were pinpoints of his on his face, mapped out like constellations. It covered his hands, clogged under his nails.
"My God…Vince…what the fuck…?"
His voice was shaky, too, involuntarily, and had abruptly risen in pitch. He crossed the room in two strides and enveloped the little man in a tight, strangling embrace. Vince collapsed against his shoulder, clasping onto his back with his hand. Howard ignored the aching press of the gun into his spine. He ran his hand over Vince's hair roughly, barely registering that the man had blood in his precious coiffure. It was a brutal embrace.
"Are you alright, Vince? Talk to me."
Vince weakly nodded against his shoulder. Howard drew back, grabbed Vince's shoulders with his arms and looked deeply into his eyes.
"You're not hurt anywhere?"
"No, I – I don't think so."
"Oh, thank God!"
He hugged Vince again, more gentle this time: "What happened?"
"I dunno, Howard," Vince sobbed. "I opened the door and they was just there, these police guys and they barged in, said they knew who you were and what you'd done an' they said they'd been sent to arrest us so I called for you but then the first one, he pulled this gun out on me and he shot but I ducked and so he was gonna shoot me again but I ran for the drawer and I got mine and I shot him, I shot him but I didn't have time to check where coz he was about to pull the trigger and so I shot 'im, I killed him, I…"
Vince broke down into startled, angry sobs. Howard breathed in sharply as water seeped through his shirt and stuck to his shoulder. He hadn't noticed before, but the door was slightly ajar and there was a smoking black hole in the wood.
"Am I a murderer, Howard?"
"Vince…" He drew back, looked his partner dead in the eyes. "Vince, listen to me, alright? What you did, that was self-defence. If anything, I…"
He couldn't even finish the sentence. He moved to the door and pushed it shut in a pointless effort to somehow shield them from the horrors lurking outside. He ran his fingers through his hair, dragging them over his scalp: "Fuck…"
"I've never killed anyone before."
"Me neither, Vince."
Howard turned. Vince was staring at him. "Yeah?"
"What do we do now?" Vince's voice was barely above a whisper, a whimper.
Howard shrugged. "I don't know, Vince."
"But…you always know. You always know, Howard. Everythin' you know what to do."
"Not this time, little man. I've never planned for this."
Vince wiped his cheeks with the palms of his clean, unsoiled hands. Then he looked up, and offered Howard a shaky smile. "Right. I'll put the kettle on, shall I?"
He had barely taken a step before he sunk to his knees. Howard dashed to his side, and hoisted him up and into the living room; sat him on the sofa.
"Don't worry, eh, little man…" he muttered soothingly. "You just stay there, alright…"
When he was satisfied that Vince was ok, Howard moved off into the kitchen, his gaze pointedly bypassing the slumped figures and the blood that shone on his floor. He turned on the kettle with surprisingly steady hands, and then rested his head against the fridge.
"Shit…" he whispered to himself.
He didn't know what to do, what even their options were. If what the policemen were saying were true, then there would soon be police on their trails. The only reason they weren't both dead now was because shit like this didn't happen in Kent. London, yes, but not here. Here the people ate oysters and had folk nights. Here, the nice young coppers who helped assist old ladies across the road didn't get shot by the fugitives in the nice house by the sea. Whitstable might have been relaxed about law enforcement, but even they had protocols for this sort of thing. Howard knew that they would be vastly outnumbered, and what then?
He glanced around his kitchen, and the sudden force of what he had just done hit him. He had just shot someone in the back of the neck, and now that person was dead. He had just killed a person. Howard had never used to think he would ever kill anybody. That was before somebody had a gun up against Vince's petrified face, he supposed. He felt sick, clogged up from the inside with tar and cement. Vince, Vince had shot somebody too.
They had been blissful an hour ago, lazily kissing in the afternoon sun. How could things go from being so good to so shit in such a short time?
Howard poured the tea, and monotonously poured in the milk and stirred it. The comforting liquid, the symbol of British content, stared ironically back at him.
He picked up the mugs, and was about to take them through to the living room when a large crashing sound echoed through the house. Vince appeared in the hallway, and scuttled towards Howard, his boots leaving a trail of blood behind him. There was yelling from outside, and the wood of the door began to splinter. When it crashed open, the first thought that flickered through Howard's mind was one of relief. This, however, quickly gave way to panic when four armed policemen came bursting into the hallway, pointing their guns and shouting and shouting. Both men leapt up off the sofa, and Howard instinctively leapt in front of Vince.
"Put your hands in the air!" one barked, kicking the gun that Vince had dropped earlier out of reach. Reluctantly, Howard complied, and Vince silently followed his lead.
"Holy shit!" one of the other men cried out. "That's Calvin and Rob!"
"Fuck it, I'll fucking shoot them myself, the cunts!"
One of the officers stormed into the room, and raised his gun towards Howard's face. The Northerner cowered back, shielding Vince with his arms. The man snarled. Howard closed his eyes tightly and waited.
Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.
When he felt no pain, Howard slowly, tentatively opened one eye. Then he opened the other.
"You fucking bastards…" he whispered to himself.
"Yeah, nice to see you too, Moon!" came a familiar Irish brogue, and Ken tugged the mask off his face and grinned at the pair. They were standing in the doorway, framed by the dimming daylight like two gun-wielding, balaclava-toting superheroes. With a grunt, the smaller man next to him also pulled the cover off his face.
"And what the fuck were you two doing?" he exclaimed. "Standing there without your guns. Have we taught you absolutely nothing?"
"Yeah, well, you bloody well took your time!" Vince cried, grabbing Howard's hand.
"Yeah, what are you doing here, anyway?" Howard added.
Ken gestured downwards, and for the first time Howard registered the mottled blood of the four fallen policemen, that ran in a river to join their friends. He breathed in tightly.
"We got tipped off," the Irishman said. "Some bloke down the Met said they'd got wind of the bank robbers down here and so we thought we'd best come and make sure you were ok."
"Don't mention it," said Ray. "But, fuck's sake! You two need to get out."
"And go where?"
"Just go," replied the large man. "Head for London and Ken and I will call you when we've figured something out. Trouble is, right, you've just killed six men-"
"Two!" Vince cried, outraged.
"Yeah, but they don't know we've been here," argued Ken. "And it'll stay that way, with any luck. For now, just grab what you need, and get the fuck out of here."
Howard took one final glance at his house, and slung the bag over his shoulder. He was going to miss the old place, as sentimental as it was. He'd packed an assortment of normal, everyday clothes into an old rucksack to take, as well as the essentials: toothbrush, a few CDs, and, of course, teabags. After some careful deliberation, he had tucked his gun safely inside as well. He had momentarily worried about Vince's packing, but the little man had been surprisingly minimal – not to mention he had an amazing ability to fit things in bags in a way to make Mary Poppins jealous. Vince had been quiet; subdued. Howard didn't bloody blame him.
"Alright, Howard?" Ken asked. Howard turned and fumbled with the glasses that were sliding off his face.
"Yep. Let's go."
Vince was waiting by the door. He'd showered, changed; binned the brand-new red jeans that had soaked up too much blood. He smiled shyly, and Howard smiled back. He took his hand.
Together, they ducked through the door with their bags and dashed as if it were raining towards the little mint-blue taxi. Howard chucked his bag in the back and clambered into the front seat. Vince got in next to him.
"What're they…" he muttered. Howard leant past him, following his gaze towards the now-broken front door of his house. Ken and Ray were standing, obscured from view, waving two pieces of material in front of their faces.
"Oh, shit…" Howard muttered.
"We forgot to put the balaclavas on."
Howard twisted back to look through the rearview mirror. For the first time in his life, his luck had run out, for the usually easy-going camera was glaring right at him. He groaned, and then felt an arm on his shoulder.
"It don't matter," Vince muttered. "Let's just go."
"Right you are, little man."
The car began to quietly purr. "Hey, Howard?"
"I'm…I'm ok. I know you think I ain't, but I am. My body's telling me I shouldn't be, and I know I'm not physically, but…once I get over this…I'll be alright."
Howard's smile threatened to tear at his cheekbones.
"I love you, Howard."
"Love you too, Vince."
"Whatever happens, right?"
"Yeah. You want to put some music on?"
Vince grinned, and rummaged around in the glove compartment, pulling out a container and flicking through a few CDs. He pulled one out, and his face lit up. He slotted the disc into the portable player that still rested on the dashboard, and pressed play.
Howard groaned. "Not electro!"
"This is an absolute classic, you jerk-off!"
"Fine, but only if I get to play Mingus after we get to London."
"In your fucking dreams, love."
And as the two turned out onto the motorway, still bickering, Vince suddenly let out a howl of excitement and began singing along to the CD. In that moment, Howard forgot that they'd just killed two people or that the whole of England's police were out looking for them, because Vince was laughing and smiling and singing along, and everything was good.
"Ooh! Right through my head!
I ain't got the blues no more I said,
Step some more, I said, pick me up,
Thinking I've got a lot, ooh ay eh…"
The End…But Is It Really The End…?
Note – That's it! It's over! I don't know about you, but I feel very emotional. I would like now to thank everybody who has ever read, favourited and especially reviewed this story, and everyone who will do so in the future. I completely owe everything I've written to you, and I won't name all of you because you know who you are. But thanks for sticking through this with me, and maybe I'll see you when I dig out these characters to play with once more. Until then, thank you, and goodnight!