About Linda Brandon...
Linda Brandon is a writer, teacher and former copywriter who grew up on an almond farm in South Australia.
She has received Highly Commended awards for short stories in the Ghostly Stringybark Short Story Award (2015), the Stringybark Times Past Award (2016) and the New England Thunderbolt Prize for Crime Writing (2016).
She has been published in the Stringybark anthologies The Ghostly Stringybark (2015) and Longing for Solitude (2016). Linda lives with her family in north-western NSW.
The Streets by Linda Brandon
Gary was not happy. His bony face was reflected in the sharpness of his black eyes, the meanness of his thin lips.
“Where’s the rest of it then?” he said, but it wasn’t really a question.
“That’s all I got,” the boy said. “I’ll get more, though. Soon.”
Gary slid the money inside his jacket, black eyes fixed on the boy. The boy lifted his chin, straightened scrawny shoulders. Without warning, an arm shot out and blunt knuckles cracked against his jaw, flinging him backward.
Gary took a few steps forward and squatted, dropping to his haunches where the boy lay. The boy looked up, his face smarting, but trying to ignore the pain. He slid his tongue around his mouth, tasted blood.
“Make sure you fucking do,” Gary said, stood, and walked away. Turning, the boy spat, blood and saliva spurting thickly against the concrete. Lifting a hand to his face, he winced as his fingers touched hot skin that was already swelling. At least he hadn’t lost any teeth this time.
He got to his feet, swaying, and left the squat, passing remnants of people sleeping or smoking or lying silently. Emerging in to the greyness of a late winter afternoon, the boy pulled his hoodie up and slid his hands in to the pockets of his jacket, keeping his head down. Gary would expect something in the next day or so and he knew where to find him if he didn’t deliver.
He needed to figure this out.
The boy walked quickly along the dirty pavement, cold air stinging his face and clearing the fogginess in his head that remained from Gary’s fist.
He walked around for a while, as afternoon evolved in to a nondescript evening and the streets became shrouded in pale light from the streetlights. He saw a few street kids that he knew, but their blank faces told him they were wasted and he continued unnoticed. Out the front of a pub he picked the wallet of a suit slurring in to a phone. He pocketed $40 cash before buying chocolate and a Coke at a convenience store with the debit card and tossing the wallet in to a boarded up doorway. Small amounts on paywave never raised suspicion.
His mind was on the money and Gary, when he rounded a corner and saw Jonno and his mates lounging at the edge of the park, their usual hang out. The boy hung back, blending in to a doorway. Jonno was leaning against his car – a red V8 Falcon - parked at the kerb, legs straight out in front of him, one hand at his side dangling a cigarette. He loved that car.
As the boy watched, one of the gang whistled and grabbed at his crotch as a young woman walked past. A couple of the others laughed while Jonno remained impassive and took a drag of his cigarette. When the young woman passed the boy, she was walking quickly with her head down and so she didn’t even see him in the doorway, although she was so close he could see the whites of her knuckles where her hand clenched the strap of her handbag. He watched the gang for a few more minutes. They were mucking about while Jonno appeared uninterested, but the boy could see he was keeping an eye on them. Jonno was like that. That’s what made him so dangerous. The boy had seen him like that once – appearing relaxed and uninterested – while the others were hassling a man, when he – Jonno - had exploded – knocking the man to the ground and laying the boot in, until by the time the gang left the man lay bloody and half-conscious on the ground. The boy knew not to underestimate him. Jonno was a customer of Gary’s and when he was on a bender everyone stayed clear.
The boy knew the gang. He’d been watching them for months. The newest member was loud, young and eager to prove himself, but he was nervous. His hands gave him away. They were never still; always fiddling with a cigarette, or his phone, and his nails were bitten down. He was beefed up, but the boy knew his swollen biceps were due as much to steroids as lifting weights. The others were tougher, meaner, more confident. They’d been around these streets for a while.
Although he’d sold them stuff from Gary, the boy knew they hadn’t taken much notice of him. He was small, quiet, ordinary. Exchanges of drugs and money were quick, especially when the deal was already done and he was just the go-between, the courier.
Jonno got a call. It only lasted seconds, but he signalled the others and they moved off down the street, not quickly, but with purpose. They disappeared around the corner at the end of the block.
Slipping out from the doorway, the boy moved down the street also. Not too fast, not too slow, head bent.
He had an idea.
Reaching Jonno’s car, he didn’t break stride. He walked around to the driver’s door and tried the handle. It was unlocked and he slid in. The keys were in the ignition. These were Jonno’s streets – no one in their right mind would touch this car. It was asking for a beating... or worse.
Glancing about, the boy could see that the street was empty. He started the car and was struck with a burst of loud music. He swore and punched at the dial, turning it off. His eyes flicked to the pavements, but there weren’t many people about and no one was paying attention. He drove in the direction he’d come, the V8 chugging and roaring.
Gary’s girlfriend lived in a dirty weatherboard house that had been turned in to apartments. The boy parked out front and killed the engine. He thought for a minute, took a couple of deep breaths. Smoked a cigarette.
Gary opened the door when he knocked. “I got something for ya,” the boy said. Gary grasped a handful of the boy’s hoodie and pulled him through the doorway, kicking the door shut behind him. The boy held Jonno’s car keys out and Gary stared.
“A car?” Anger, never far away, tightened Gary’s face like a mask. “You’re meant to get my money for me, not a bloody car!”
“What’s going on?” Ruby, Gary’s girlfriend, emerged from the bedroom in a towel, knotted tightly against her thin chest. Gary let go of the boy with a rough push.
“Kid’s brought me a bloody car,” snarled Gary.
“What sort of car?” Ruby asked.
“V8 Falcon. Red. Good sound system,” said the boy.
Ruby ‘s greedy eyes gleamed.
“Might be alright,” she said. “Where is it?”
“Out front,” said the boy. He was still holding the car keys and Ruby grabbed them, a painted nail scraping the boy’s hand. She squealed and ran to the bedroom, not bothering to close the door while she got dressed and the boy stared at the ground. He didn’t want Gary to think he was perving.
Ruby was excited. Her eyes were wide as she ran a hand over the shiny paintwork and she bounced on her toes as she implored Gary for a ride.
Gary stood on the pavement looking at the car. Rage simmered below the surface and the boy stayed back.
“I bet it’s fast!” Ruby said. “We could go for a ride, go to the beach!” She flew back to Gary, seized his arm. “Come on, babe. We’ll...”
“Shut yer mouth!” Gary growled, shoving Ruby away. She had put on high heels and she tottered backward, her ankle turning as she hit the edge of the kerb and she fell in to the gutter.
“You bastard!” she yelled, as she picked herself up. Her knee was bleeding where she’d grazed it on the rough road.
“I didn’t ask for a fucking car!” Gary turned on the boy.
“I want to keep the car!” shouted Ruby. She had her arms folded and her face was creased in a scowl.
“We’re not keeping the car!”
“Why not? I like it!”
Gary’s face was dark as he stalked toward Ruby. She shrank against the side of the car.
“Come on, babe,” she whimpered. But she wasn’t talking about the car anymore.
Ruby gasped as Gary grabbed a fistful of hair and dragged her back to the apartments. Her head bent, feet trying to keep up with him, she tried to keep up, but just before the front door she staggered and the boy heard her scream as Gary thrust her through the doorway.
Gary returned and his voice was hard as he said, “Get in.”
They drove in silence, Gary’s rage growing under the forbidding calmness on the surface. The boy stayed still in his seat, looking straight ahead. The streets were dark and even quieter now, the cold settled in.
Jonno was sitting on a stone wall bordering a garden bed in the middle of the park, near the toilet block. The boy could see him silhouetted from a nearby lamppost, pointed him out to Gary as they parked on the road. Jonno’s head turned as Gary let the car door slam. The boy had already gotten out of the car, moved to where he was concealed by a large shrub to the edge of the park’s entrance.
Gary rounded the car. His eyes were fixed on Jonno and he was focussed, every line of his body tense and pupils dilated. Jonno had jumped down from the stone wall and stood with feet apart, shoulders squared. Even from a short distance away, the boy could see the fury as Jonno recognised his car and stared back at the man walking toward him. Gary followed the path that led in to the park, headed for Jonno. He had forgotten the boy. As he strode away, the boy saw the bulge in the waistband at the back of Gary’s jeans and he slunk in to a garden heavy with shrubbery, heart thrumming in his chest as he peered through branches and leaves.
When Gary had nearly reached him, Jonno moved forward, so that they met on the path under the shadow of a large oak, stopping a couple of metres apart.
“What ya doin’ with the car, man?” yelled Jonno.
Gary stopped, surprised at Jonno’s anger. “Mine. Payment for unpaid goods.”
“I want the money.”
Jonno stared at Gary. “I ain’t giving you shit,” he spat. “Give me the keys before I knock ya fucking teeth out.”
Gary laughed, a short, mirthless sound that sent a shiver through the boy. He could see a couple of the gang coming out of the toilet block, wiping their noses. They were looking around, looking for Jonno.
“I want my money and I’m not gonna fucking ask again.”
It was enough to set off Jonno’s short fuse.
Gary was reaching for his gun as Jonno swung his fist. The uppercut was swift and hard, cracking bone. The gun flew out of Gary’s hand as his head snapped back and his body reeled sideways. He straightened, cursing, holding his jaw, but Jonno had seized the gun and he was pointing it at Gary. The couple of gang members had run up, one was the new one, the nervous one. He was keyed up, shifting about and flexing muscles, but the other one was quiet and still, waiting. Gary stood completely motionless, not breaking eye contact with Jonno.
“No-one messes with me,” said Jonno. In the shrubbery, the boy was frozen, eyes smarting from lack of blinking.
“You gonna do him, Jonno? Are ya?” The new one bounced from foot to foot, his movements jerky, voice shrill with excitement.
Jonno was still looking at Gary when he held the gun out to the young gang member.
“Why don’t you?” It was a challenge.
Gary didn’t move. There was movement in the park and the rest of the gang materialised, coming to stand alongside, forming a semi-circle around Gary.
“Look, we can work something out here,” said Gary, his voice high and thin. But it was too late. The new kid took the gun from Jonno. He aimed and fired, the shot ringing out. Gary slumped to the ground.
Jonno stepped forward and retrieved his car keys. The new kid stood, staring at Gary and the blood that was already seeping in to the joins in the pavers. One of the gang clapped the new kid’s arm, told him to come on as they left quickly, glancing each way as they exited the park and all jumped in to Jonno’s car. The car roared, tyres screeched and they were gone.
The boy left the shrubbery. He knew he had to get out of there, but he had to see for himself.
Gary was on his back, legs twisted sideways, blood down one side of his face. Dead eyes stared up at the night sky.
People were moving about slowly at the squat, but nobody noticed the boy as he threaded through the rooms to his spot at the back. For some reason, the small space was the coldest in the squat and always damp, but it meant no one cared that he was there, or bothered him. The thin mattress and grubby blanket were as he left them and he curled in to the blanket, pulling a lumpy yellowing pillow close, lying on his side with his back coiled so that his knees almost touched his chest. He replayed the scene at the park, remembered the words, the shooting. He knew what Gary was like. He knew Jonno. He knew how the new kid was likely to react. The risk had been if they had worked out what part he had played in everything. But he had watched them all for so long, figured each one of them out, that he knew the risk was low. Jonno thought Gary had taken his car. Gary thought Jonno hadn’t paid him. Now Jonno had his car back and Gary was dead.
The boy thought about Jonno’s money. About hiding all that cash and no one suspecting. Now it was his. And he was free of Gary. A warmth spread through him and it wasn’t long before the boy fell asleep.