Following my wife’s death I lived at the ‘Knock, Knock’ club. I spent most of my time in the spacious but neat apartment at the top of the building they had granted me. Someone had placed a photograph of the club founders in it. I only knew this was my grandfather, having never met the man, because of the striking resemblance he bore to my mother. From what I could understand of the club I was now at the mercy of, they paid homage to him as one of their founding members. I hadn’t gathered enough nerve yet to ask more than they had already told me. The club was no more than a cult. When my mother gave birth to me – the son of a lowly fisherman – she ran to the city of Coldford from her island home in Westcliff. As the last remaining member of the Crusow family, half of The Group wanted me dead and the other half, like the Knock, Knock club manager Dennis and the cabaret performer Tabitha, were striving to keep me alive.
Since my first visit my wife, Theresa, had been murdered by those trying to flush me out. Tabitha had put a bullet through the Mayor of Coldford’s head because his wife was a member of the club and his affairs, gambling and general wasting of the city’s money was beginning to bother her. I should have left then but I had nowhere else to go and that until I embraced the club’s protection I wouldn’t be safe anywhere. I didn’t fear that. I guess what kept me there so long was that I was a reporter by trade and this was a story too rich to let go. The club spread to very high places and if I kept quiet long enough I could blow the whole thing open. I realise now how naïve I was in thinking this but I had nothing else.
According to Tabitha, the club allowed protection for its members even through depressions like the one that Coldford was experiencing at that time. Times were desperate and the members need not suffer the indignity of poverty when there was so much of the flesh, blood and belongings of non members to go around.
I couldn’t really tell if I was being held prisoner or not. After all, having the same name as my grandfather, Samuel Crusow, they held me in such high regard. I never tried to leave. Tabitha – niece of The Group’s co founder, Tawny – made it quite clear that there was no point. Their influence spread far and wide. The police had already suspected me as being responsible for Theresa’s murder. All the club had to do was to call into their members at Coldford police department and I would snapped up and put in a cell for the rest of my life. Given the choice, my room at the club was much more comfortable.
The girl’s at the club kept me kept me supplied with food and drink.It wasn’t great quality. The meat was gritty and the cider was on the turn but it was better than anything outside and there was enough of it to feed a large family. When I looked out of the window I could see men, women and children scrounging in the alley for a decent meal. The Coldford depression being so severe even the soup kitchens couldn’t stay open. I had taken to putting what food I could into plastic bags and dropping them from the window so the wretched homeless would be able to find something to eat.
I started to become familiar with the patrons and staff at ‘Knock, Knock’ without actually getting to know them. I didn’t like being on my own so much so I loomed about the club like the ‘Knock, Knock’ mascot. One afternoon I wandered down into the main club floor. The last stragglers from the matinee sessions were beginning to clear out to make way for the dinner visitors. Dennis was leaning against the bar, overseeing the rush of staff, preparing for the biggest show of the day.
“Take a load off Sam,” he instructed.
Normally only people who know me well enough called me Sam but Dennis was one of those types who treated everyone like they were life long friends. It didn’t matter if he had known them five minutes or five years. I had come to expect it from him.
The girl behind the bar, A flaming haired beauty barely out of her teens named Lisa, poured a whiskey and slid it over to me.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“Nothing more than the usual,” he replied.
Tabitha came tearing from backstage. She wore gents trousers, white shirt and black waistcoat. Her lips were tightened with fury. She was clutching a blood stained shirt in her hand which she threw at Dennis. Dennis barely flinched.
“One life for another. It’s only fair don’t you think?” he remarked.
“Am I missing something?” I asked. My reporter mind was ready to take note. If there was some division between Tabitha and Dennis I could exploit then perhaps getting away from them would be easier than I thought.
Tabitha just sneered at Dennis. “He was mine!” she snarled before storming backstage again.
Dennis turned into the bar. He threw the bloodied shirt to Lisa. “Trash that will you kid?” he instructed. The girl disappeared through a narrow door at the end of the bar that led onto the alley. No doubt the spot where the Knock, Knock club disposed of its evidence.
“Tabitha told me her story. She was born into this. How did you come to be involved?” I asked. I hoped Dennis would assume I was enquiring as a friend and not a nosey journalist.
Dennis relayed his tale to me. Before the ‘Knock, Knock’ club he lived in the small town of Millefort, outside of the city, towards the coast. It would have been the first piece of civilisation my mother would have met when she carried me in her arms from Westcliff.
Dennis and his father, David, were traders who thrived on their ideal location between the docks where exciting food, clothes and trinkets would arrive from foreign lands and the city of Coldford where there were (at that time) plenty of customers willing to spend on such treasures. They had a happy life – at least that was how Dennis described it. He was married to a beautiful, if not a little neurotic, woman named Julianne. She was carrying their first child. Perhaps a boy? Perhaps a girl? They didn’t care as long as the baby was healthy. David Platt had bid Dennis’ mother a heartfelt farewell as she ended a long suffering year of a disease doctors couldn’t combat but whilst David had his son and a grandchild on the way he wasn’t ready to join her yet.
As Dennis set the scene it made me consider that this kind of contentment was only the pleasant, sun drenched calm before the storm. After all, he had went from family man with everything most people would covet to a grotty back alley club in Coldford where murder is all part of the entertainment.
Ships had been arriving with new products and Dennis had been at the Millefort Harbour to greet them. As the deliveries were being carried from the ship to the waiting ‘Platt and Son’ van, one of the helpers allowed the crate he was carrying to slip from his fingers.
“Woah!” Dennis cried as some of the coffee beans it contained spilled out from torn packets. “Be careful with that or I’m going to have to charge you.”
“Sorry sir,” murmured the helper.
“Just get it loaded into the van,” said Dennis, checking his watch to see how much time had been wasted.
As the delivery men busied themselves loading the van, Dennis spied a girl sat at the edge of the pier. She had pulled her heavy fur coat close to her chin. Her white stockinged legs dangled over the edge.
“Are you okay kid?” he asked, approaching her slowly so she wouldn’t be frightened by the sudden appearance of a stranger.
She looked up at him. Her rich attire and the diamonds that sparkled in her ears were unusual for Millefort. It was a laid back town, with earthy people. Her eyes were a pale grey, her lips painted a vibrant red. “I need to get to Westcliff,” she said.
“They don’t have any passenger ships here,” instructed Dennis. The girl looked solemnly out across the water. “What is your name?”
“Where have you come from?”
“Filton. I’m looking for my aunt. She’s in Westcliff.”
Dennis, looking back at the delivery men who were closing the van up, said to Tabitha, “A boat ain’t going to magically appear kid.” He reached out and helped her onto her feet again which were clad in crushed velvet shoes. “Why don’t you come home with me and we can get you sorted.”
Dennis had expected Tabitha to resist climbing into a large blue van with a man she didn’t know but she thought nothing of it. She rode in silence beside him. Dennis had many questions that he wanted to ask her but he followed her lead and said nothing.
When they reached his home he finally said, “Don’t worry, I’ll smooth it over with my wife.”
The van crawled in front of a whitewashed bungalow. It was early evening by then. Darkness was smothering the sun underneath a pillow of stars. The lights in the houses were beginning to illuminate the narrow street. A large window at the front bathed the dark, tidy lawn in an azure glow.
A woman came charging into the light of the headlamps. She was dressed in a thin nightdress and was barefoot despite the chill in the air. She was heavily pregnant.
Dennis grunted, brought the van to a complete stop and rolled down the window. He leaned out and called to her, “Julie, what the Hell are you doing? I could have ran you over!” He climbed out and Tabitha followed.
“What kept you?” asked Julianne. “I was worried.” She linked her arm through her husband’s and stared at the stray girl he had brought home.
“You know its a long drive. I found this girl. She was lost.”
Julianne reached her free hand out and took Tabitha’s in hers. “Who are you?”
“My name is Tabitha. I need to get to my aunt in Westcliff.”
“This is the wrong direction,” said Julianne coldly. “You won’t get far tonight. You had better come inside.”
“Tabitha’s grey eyes clouded. She pulled her coat closer to her frame. “I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you,” she said as she followed the couple heading towards their front door.
“My husband has brought his fair share of strange women into my home.” Julianne pulled her arm away from Dennis and entered the house first.
Despite Julianne’s obvious discomfort at having her there, Tabitha remained with them. The days rolled on and the weeks went by. Julianne avoided her where possible. Dennis managed to decipher that her parents whom she lived with in Filton had died in a terrible accident. The details of this accident were too painful to discuss. The only living relative she had left was an aunt (her grandfather’s sister) who lived on the island of Westcliff. The only worldly possessions she had were the expensive clothes she had been wearing when Dennis met her and a bankers note that would allow her to draw on her parent’s accounts which were extensive. She was hesitant to do this. She settled into the home of the Platt family and despite her eagerness to get to Westcliff on the first day, she never mentioned it again.
“What age do you suppose she is?” Julianne asked as she and Dennis watched the stranger from a distance. The stranger they had invited into their home for a night was now sat comfortably in their sofa – blue leather with delicately carved wooden trimmings that was Julianne’s pride and joy – watching their television.
“I don’t know. Sixteen, seventeen maybe?”
Julianne groaned and rubbed her swollen womb. “She said she was going to board a boat to Westcliff weeks ago. Why is she still here? The baby will be here any day now and we will need the room back.”
Tabitha’s explanation of her life in Filton was sketchy. She wouldn’t draw on her parent’s accounts to pay for her upkeep or find somewhere more luxurious to live. Judging by what clothes and jewellery she had with her she was wealthy. Filton was a haven for the rich. She did what she could to earn her board by helping David – who lived next door to his son – with the accounts for their trading. She did this with the meticulous detail of an expert. She didn’t pay for her food but she fetched whatever they needed and cooked it so that Julianne didn’t have to. She told them that she had written to her aunt, inviting her to the mainland to help her sort her parent’s affairs and was awaiting a response.
More time went by. A little baby boy with Dennis’ dark eyes and the soft wisps of Julianne’s chestnut hair was brought into the family. He was named Milo and even Julianne had to admit that Tabitha’s help in dealing with the infant was invaluable. Tabitha held Milo in her arms a lot. She sang to him, she danced around the room with him. Whenever he saw her face he would break into an adoring, gummy grin. David adored her too. At the end of the day Tabitha was quiet and solemn but when it came to people she was a vibrant performer. Times were bliss for the Platt family. Life was complete.
“That baby of yours must be keeping you up all night,” quipped one of the Coldford buyers when Dennis struck a deal much lower than he normally would.
“You’ve just caught me in a good mood,” Dennis laughed. “Don’t expect the same next month.
“Don’t let him kid you,” piped up another. “It’s that young girl writing the accounts that’s got him in such high spirits.” Dennis shrugged off the comment and made his way back home.
The house had been surprisingly quiet. Milo wasn’t crying. There was no bickering between Julianne and Tabitha. Tabitha was alone in the den. She was sat on the edge of the sofa wearing her coat. There was a large deep crimson blood stain across the wall as though something or someone had been whacked hard with a heavy blunt object.
“What happened? Where’s Julie?” asked Dennis.
“She’s gone,” murmured Tabitha. “She tried to hurt me. She tried to hurt Milo but I stopped her. She took him and now she’s gone.”
Dennis was breathless. His wife and child were gone. A thick blood stain was all that remained. He checked Milo’s room to see with his own eyes if what Tabitha told him was true. His instincts then drew him towards his father.
“David’s gone too,” Tabitha called after him as he darted next door.
Dennis found his father’s door open. His television was blaring loudly as it always did. There was a bullet hole in the back of his head. His eyes were wide. The image of the assailant still printed on the whites.
Tabitha had followed behind him and laid a consoling hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “It’s time I cashed my parents accounts. We can get out of here.”
Dennis shook his head, forcing back the sobs in intense breaths. “She murdered my father. She took my boy.”
“There’s nothing here for either of us. Come with me to Coldford. My aunt has written to me. She will meet us there. She will find Julianne faster than the police ever could.”
Dennis finished his story. I leaned back against the bar. I realised I was still holding the same empty glass I had had at the beginning of his tale.
“So you came to Coldford with Tabitha. You believed that your wife suddenly went crazy, murdered your father and ran off with your boy? Didn’t it occur to you that it was probably Tabitha – you know, the member of this ridiculous group who believe they have licence to murder.”
A smile crawled across Dennis’ lips. “Of course it did. It still does.”
“Then why come here?”
“I believed her when she said she could find my son. She loved Milo. I had no reason to think she would hurt him. Like you, I had nowhere else to go. The club replaced the family I lost. Now I can’t be without them. Whatever happened to Julianne, Milo is still alive. I know it.”
“How long ago was this?”
“About eight … no ten years ago. Milo will be ten now.”
“How can you look her in the eye? She could have been responsible for it all,” I felt the need to remind him.
Dennis emitted a cold peal of laughter. “Did it occur to you that she may have had something to do with the death of your wife too?”
I hadn’t really considered it before but Dennis’ words hit me like a bolt of lightening. “I guess she could have …”
“Like me you will always have that at the back of your mind but you will never leave this club. I am no founding member,” Dennis explained. “I don’t have any family name to hold on to. The club would rather see me dead than expend any effort in keeping me sweet. I have no choice but to play their game.”
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