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Solitude (Short Story)

NOTE: This is another of the early James Leipfold short stories which delves a little into the character’s past. It’s an unedited first draft, but I figured why not share it? Enjoy.

 

IT WAS AN EARLY AUTUMN EVENING, and Leipfold was sitting alone in the beer garden at the Rose and Crown and wondering how and why the last six years had happened.

Leipfold wasn’t drinking, and his mind and his body both felt better for it. Not that he had much else to do with his time. It was lonely on the outside. No girlfriend, no friends, and two dead parents who’d left the world too early. He was living in a halfway house, a hostel that agreed to take him in for thirty days while he sorted his life out. All he had were his meagre savings, and they wouldn’t last for long.

So he did the only thing that he could think of. He hopped on his bike and cycled off towards the unemployment agency. He needed to sign on.

The woman that he spoke to was a dowdy 50-something in a shapeless frock from a charity shop. She had a husky voice from too many cigarettes and smelled faintly of stale alcohol. Leipfold couldn’t stop thinking about it – the smell haunted him, and he had to constantly remind himself of all of the work that he’d put in to get there.

“What do you want?” she asked him. She sounded bored and angry at the same time, and if she was supposed to address people politely then Leipfold supposed that she hadn’t got the memo. Then again, he thought, why would they care? They’re doing me a favour, after all. I guess they don’t get paid extra for human kindness.

“I’d like to register as a jobseeker,” Leipfold said. “I need some money. Give me what you got.”

“Uh huh,” the woman said. “And what kind of work are you looking for?”

“Anything where I can use my brain,” Leipfold said. “I’ve always thought about becoming a private detective.”

“A private detective?” She laughed. “I don’t think so. The police force, maybe, a big lad like you. But you’ve got a record, so that’s gone. A bouncer, perhaps? And I’m sure we could get you some work in a warehouse.”

“I don’t want to work in a warehouse,” Leipfold said.

The woman shrugged. “Sometimes we just have to take what we get given,” she told him. “Okay, Mr. Leipfold, let me see what I can do. We’ve got a few potential matches. I’m going to get you all set up and then I’ll give you a call in the next few days once we’ve arranged an interview. Please can you double check your phone number?”

“I have an impeccable memory,” Leipfold said. “That’s the right number. And if it doesn’t work out, you can call my probation officer or the halfway house. Trust me, I’m not going anywhere.”

The woman frowned at him and pursed her lips. Then she shook her head. “You’re not very good at obeying authority figures,” she said. “Are you, Mr. Leipfold?”

Leipfold just ignored her.

 

***

 

The first interview was scheduled for the following Tuesday. Leipfold had been told to go along to a garage on the outskirts of town, and he dutifully turned up at the appointed hour. He was wearing his only suit, and the garage’s owner took exception to Leipfold immediately.

“Do you know what a mechanic does, boy?”

“Boy?” Leipfold repeated. “Who are you calling ‘boy’? I’m not much younger than you are.”

“That doesn’t matter,” the mechanic said. “When you’re working for me, I’ll call you whatever I want to.”

Leipfold growled, but he bit his tongue and managed to stop himself from replying.

“I’ll be honest,” the mechanic said, “I don’t like you.”

“You don’t know me,” Leipfold said. “You only just met me.”

“Still,” he replied. “I don’t like you. I haven’t liked you since I set eyes on you. But I believe in giving a man a chance where I can, so here’s what I’m going to do. I want you to start right away and show me what you’ve got. We’ve got a bunch of odd jobs that need doing and no hands to do them. You can start on grease duty. Go and help the boys, they’re refitting an engine in Bay C.”

“In this suit?”

“You can change into overalls,” the mechanic said. “We’ll have some spares in your size. Get someone to check the lost and found.”

“Great,” Leipfold said. He shook hands with the boss and followed him through into a back room.

It was a dull and tedious first day. Leipfold wasn’t exactly a petrol-head, but he liked to think that he knew cars. He certainly knew them well enough to identify a half dozen inefficiencies by the time that they broke for a brew and a sneaky cigarette. But none of the men would listen to him. It was as though they didn’t want to work more efficiently. As though they didn’t care about their jobs. Well, Leipfold didn’t care for the job either, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to make improvements.

At the end of the day, when the final vehicle had rolled off the premises and Leipfold was left alone with the owner, who didn’t look too happy to see him again.

“So how did I do?” Leipfold asked.

“About that,” the mechanic said. “You did a good job. The boys were impressed with your work, and so was I for that matter. But there’s just something I don’t like about you. I’m sorry, young man.”

“Don’t call me young man,” Leipfold growled.

“Exactly,” the man replied. He held out a couple of bank notes. “Take these. It’s your pay for today. But don’t come back tomorrow.”

Leipfold groaned. “Why not?” he asked.

“I don’t like your attitude,” the mechanic said. “You have thoughts above your station. I have no use for that. I need a man who can follow instructions. A cog in the machine. I don’t need a man like you.”

“I see,” Leipfold said, and he did. The man felt threatened. He knew that Leipfold wouldn’t stand for any shit, and he knew that his business was full of it. Leipfold wouldn’t be expecting a call in the morning.

It wasn’t until he got home and started running a shower that he realised he was still wearing the garage’s blue coveralls.

And that meant that his best – and only – suit was still inside.

 

***

 

The second interview was at Tesco. Leipfold hadn’t got his suit back, so he showed up wearing a smart blue cardigan and a pair of plain black jeans. They were complimented by a plain pair of trainers and a smart leather bag that hung from his shoulder. He was interviewed by an efficient young woman who could have passed for Leipfold’s little sister, but Leipfold wasn’t bothered by her age. He had no problem with taking orders from people that were younger than him, as long as he agreed with them.

It was going surprisingly well. Leipfold had made no secret of his bigger ambitions, but the woman was sympathetic and Leipfold guessed that she had big plans of her own – plans that didn’t involve working at a supermarket.

Leipfold had been shown around the warehouse and taught how to use the pricing machine, and he was looking forward to trying his hand behind the counter. If there was one thing that he thought he was good at, it was talking to people. But he wasn’t expecting them to station him behind the cigarette counter.

“It’s not the cigarettes that are the problem,” Leipfold explained. “It’s the bottles of brandy, and the whiskey. Even the vodka. I don’t want to be around them.”

“Why not?”

“I’d rather not say,” Leipfold said. “Would you ask a vegetarian to work the fish counter?”

“If they wanted the job,” the woman replied, doubtfully. “We have no use for specialisms, here. We’re looking for people to work on rotation covering staff that are on leave or otherwise absent. You don’t get to pick and choose what you work on.”

“Ah,” Leipfold said. “That might be a problem.”

“Why is that?”

Leipfold thought about it for a moment and then mentally shrugged. What the hell? he thought. So he told the woman everything, from his problems with the bottle to his time in jail. She seemed to take an interest when he told her how he’d helped the warden, but none of it looked good on his CV.

“I see,” she said eventually, when Leipfold had finished. “That’s quite the story.”

“Things happen to me,” Leipfold said. “I don’t know why, they just do.”

“I can see.”

“So do I get the job?” Leipfold asked.

She looked him up and down, as though she were trying to read his mind or guess his weight.

“Are you clean now?” she asked.

“I am,” Leipfold said. “I haven’t touched a drop since I got locked up. I go to meetings and everything. I’m a changed man.”

The woman nodded. “Okay,” she said. “Well thanks for being honest with me. I’ll be in touch.”

 

***

 

It was two weeks later, and Leipfold hadn’t heard anything from the friendly woman at the supermarket. He assumed, correctly, that he hadn’t got the job. It was a blow, but it was hardly a surprise – and at least he wouldn’t have to serve the other boozehounds and handle his nemesis on a daily basis.

Leipfold’s third interview was at McDonald’s. He wore the same outfit he’d worn to the supermarket, already resigned to the fact that he’d come home reeking of chip fat and desperation. He was expecting another failure of an interview, but he was offered the job there and then and started the following Monday.

He was working with a familiar face. Donnie Flowers was all grown up, but he still had the same mischievous face that Leipfold remembered from his youth. Flowers remembered him too, if only vaguely, and they struck up an unlikely friendship as they worked together behind the counter. It turned out that Flowers had served time in the same facility as Leipfold, although he’d been released a couple of months before Leipfold had been shown inside.

Neither of them liked their job, but for a certain type of person, it was the best they could hope for. The fast food chain, with its profits in the hundreds of millions of dollars, paid minimum wage, but Leipfold was still living in the halfway house and so the money went straight into his wallet. Better still, with no booze to bother him, he didn’t have to spend it on the bottle. Not that it wasn’t tempting.

Still, the job seemed to be going well, at least in the early days. Then, towards the end of his second week as he was finally making plans to move out of the hostel, disaster struck.

It all started with a troublesome customer who wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was a kid in a shell suit, maybe fifteen years old at best with a wispy little moustache that made him look like a potato that had started to go off, and he wanted his McNuggets.

“But sir,” Leipfold said, “we’re all out. You’ll have to pick something else from the menu.”

“Nah, mate,” the customer said. “I’ll have the McNuggets.”

“We’re all out,” Leipfold repeated. “Are you deaf? What exactly do you expect me to do?”

The kid’s face flushed and made him look like he’d had a sudden allergic reaction. Leipfold pictured stabbing the kid in the eye with an epi-pen.

“Get me the manager,” the kid said.

“I am the manager,” Leipfold lied.

“Then get me head office.”

Leipfold leaned in close to the kid and grabbed him by the collar. He dragged him across the counter towards him, not caring who was looking but wondering vaguely about the implications if his parole officer heard about it. He leaned in close until he was nose to nose with the customer, when the kid’s spotty nose took up half of his peripheral vision, and said those three fatal words.

“Go fuck yourself,” Leipfold said.

And that was the end of his career at McDonald’s.

 

***

 

Leipfold was depressed.

He’d been turfed out of his lodgings and called a timewaster by the employment agency, who’d told him they’d give him a call if something came up. Leipfold suspected that it wouldn’t.

So he’d fallen back into old habits and made his way to the Rose and Crown. Cedric was still the landlord, although he looked twenty years older. His hair had been clipped short on the top and sides, and it hung low in a little grey ponytail from the back. Still, his wizened face broke into a smile as his eyes alighted on Leipfold.

“It’s you!” Cedric said.

“It’s me!” Leipfold replied.

“How the devil are you?”

“I’m grand,” Leipfold said. “It’s been a while.”

“It has,” Cedric agreed. “What can I get for you?”

“Just a lemonade.”

“A lemonade? What happened?”

“I’d rather not talk about it,” Leipfold said, gloomily. “Just get me a lemonade.”

“Sure thing,” Cedric said. Leipfold waited for him to finish drawing it and then carried it over to his usual table, which was still in its usual place, though looking slightly more faded by the weight of time. Cedric was even still getting the papers in, although one of them had gone defunct while he’d been inside, and Leipfold found himself sinking back to his old habits. He opened the papers up and browsed through the job ads.

Half an hour or so later, when he’d reached the bottom of his glass of lemonade, he walked back up to the bar and ordered a lager.

“Are you sure?” Cedric asked. “I thought you were dry.”

“I was,” Leipfold said. “I am. Or maybe I was. I don’t know. Just go ahead and get me that lager.”

“If you say so.” The landlord stroked his beard thoughtfully and hesitated before he pulled the pump, but he did as Leipfold asked and poured out a tall glass of amber. He slid it across the bar to Leipfold, who thanked him and then took the drink back over to his table.

He spent twenty minutes examining it from different angles, smelling it, swilling it gently around the glass and watching the thin froth die down. He was barely aware of the thoughts that were running through his head, but even if he’d noticed them, he wouldn’t have been able to explain them.

Leipfold held the glass up to his face again and put it to his lips. Then he put it back down again as he spied a familiar face walking in through the doorway.

Rod was wearing a hat pulled low across his face and a heavy coat to ward off the weather, but it was unmistakably him and the time between their meetings had treated him kindly. He’d dyed his hair and grown a beard, but there was something in the way that the man held himself. His suspicions were confirmed when Leipfold caught his eyes and nodded at him.

Rod bought a drink at the bar and then came to sit down beside Leipfold. He sat with his back to the rest of the pub and kept his voice low as though he didn’t want to be overheard. That didn’t surprise Leipfold. Last he’d heard, the man sitting in front of him was under witness protection, living under a changed name so that the Scottish Scally gang didn’t hunt him down and kill him.

“Fancy seeing you here,” Leipfold said. “What happened to witness protection?”

“Shhh,” Rod said. “Keep your voice down. Nobody knows that I’m here. Let’s keep it that way.”

“Fair enough,” Leipfold replied. “So what do you want? I assume that you’re here to talk to me.”

“You assumed correct,” Rod replied. “How did you guess?”

“It’d be a bit of a coincidence if the two of us just happened to bump into each other,” Leipfold said. “Do you know the odds?”

“Nope.”

“I do.” Leipfold smiled. “How can I help?”

“I’ve got a job for you,” Rod said.

“I don’t need a job.”

“That’s not what I heard.” Rod grinned and took a swig from his drink, then lifted it up in a toast to Leipfold. “Nothing like being a free man, eh?”

“Yeah,” Leipfold said.

Rod leaned in a little closer. “Look,” he murmured. “I’ve got two grand with your name on it. It’s an easy job, nothing illegal, and you’re just the man to do it for me. I need you to tail a business associate of mine and report back on his movements.”

Leipfold looked at him, cautiously. “You’re not talking about one of your old Scally friends, right?”

“No, nothing like that.”

“Hmmm,” Leipfold murmured. “Well I guess I could use the money. Tell me a more.”

 

***

 

Rod and Leipfold spent the next hour hatching plans, and then Leipfold left the bar without touching his pint. He woke up the next morning with a clear head and an investigation to embark on, and he spent the next couple of days following the man that Rod had told him about.

Leipfold hadn’t been given the mark’s name, but he didn’t need it. Rod had given him a handful of Polaroids in a plain brown envelope and Leipfold had committed each one of them to memory so that he could follow his mark without having to constantly check his face against the photograph. He did have a forgettable face and the short of thinning thatch of hair that was the common uniform of men of a certain age. He had that going for him, at least. Luckily for Leipfold, he also had an unusual gait, and Leipfold could have pointed him out in a crowd from fifty paces, just by looking at the way he walked.

But for the first couple of days at least, nothing unusual happened. Then came the third day, where his suspect had broken his routine by cancelling an appointment and heading instead to a hotel that was just around the corner of the business centre. It was a grubby little place, a seedy dive that was quite clearly the domain of travelling students and shady businessmen. Leipfold’s mark fit into the latter category.

He watched from a distance as the man walked inside, then approached it as closely as he thought he could without giving his position away. He even tried to go inside, but the receptionist shooed him away when he was unable to prove any evidence of a booking. So he did the next best thing, waiting nonchalantly outside the building and trying to look like a part of the scenery. It didn’t really work, but no one told him to move on and so Leipfold just lurked there, literally just fading away into the background and as the tourists and the commuters worked their way around him.

Leipfold’s mark came back out an hour later, but this time he had a beautiful, dark-skinned young woman on his arm. Leipfold didn’t recognise her, but he didn’t need to – he’d seen enough, and even from a difference he knew it was the same woman that was shown in some of Rod’s photographs.

He tailed them along a couple of sleeps for as long as he dated and then lost them when they hopped into the back of a taxi cab.

 

***

 

That night, he met Rod in the Rose and Crown and gave the man an update. The ex-con was in a good mood to begin with, but that soon changed when Leipfold provided his update. When Leipfold told him about the rendezvous at the sleazy hotel, Rod dropped his head into his hands and cursed into his pint of lager.

“God damn it,” he murmured. “That little bitch.”

“She’s a friend of yours?”

“Something like that,” Rod said. “She’s my lover.”

“Aren’t you married?”

“Yeah,” Rod said. “So what?”

“Carry on, then.”

“Yes, well,” Rod said, taken aback somewhat and losing steam with every passing setting. “Well, she’s supposed to be mine. She’s supposed to be waiting for me. But she’s not, is she?”

“Apparently not,” Leipfold said. “Who’s the guy?”

“That’s Steve,” Rod said, dismissively. “He’s an…uh, an old business acquaintance.”

“Is he a Scally?”

Rod hesitated for a moment and then slowly nodded his head.

“You bastard,” Leipfold said. “You told me that this wasn’t dangerous. I was following a gangster?”

“Retired,” Rod said, “but I get your point. Sorry, Leipfold, but you know how it is. He knows me, he would have recognised me. I needed help and I figured you were the only person in the world that might be able to give it.”

“Well, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news,” he replied. “You asked me to carry out surveillance so I did. You can’t complain about what I saw. That’s not how it works.”

“You’re right,” Rod admitted begrudgingly. “But I knew if I told you the full story, you wouldn’t help me. That son of a bitch. I’m going to kill him.”

“No,” Leipfold said, shaking his head. “Don’t do that. Beat him up if you need to, but no weapons. It’s not worth it. You’ve got the chance at a new life. Why risk it all to get even?”

Rod sighed. He looked down at the table and cracked his knuckles absentmindedly. He picked up his drink and took a deep gulp from it, then set it back down on the table.

“You’re right,” he said. “Of course you are. But he’ll get what’s coming to him.”

“Do what you’ve got to do,” Leipfold said. “But keep the woman out of it.”

“You’re too much of a gentleman,” Rod said. “I’m glad you’re not on the inside.”

“Likewise.”

“You’re good at this.” Rod grinned at Leipfold, then reached into his wallet. He withdrew a handful of notes – more notes than Leipfold had ever seen in a single place – and then threw them on the table in front of them, not even bothering to count them. “Maybe you should do it for a living.”

Rod finished his drink and set the glass down, then shook Leipfold’s hand, stood up and walked out of the pub. Leipfold looked down at the table and started to gather the bank notes in his fist.

“Maybe I should,” he murmured.”

Published inFiction

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