The Wrong Side of the Tracks
It took Stephen the rest of the afternoon to remove the various worms and Trojans that had infiltrated Mick’s computer defences. He ran five spyware scans a full virus sweep and rebooted the machine several times before he was confident that the machine was infection free.
At five thirty Carole popped her head round the door of the workshop.
‘I’m off now boss, I need to call in at the supermarket on the way home. See you tomorrow.’
‘Give me a minute, Carole,’ called Paul, ‘I’ll drop you off, I’m going that way.’
‘Night boss,’ they called together as they left the shop.
Stephen began the final tests on Mick’s PC.
‘No home to go to Mel?’
‘I’ve nothing on tonight, so I’m not in a hurry.’
Stephen heard her slide from her seat, a few seconds later he felt her breast press against his elbow. She slid a hand around his waist and stretched to look over his shoulder.
‘Anything I can do?’ she whispered.
Stephen straightened and edged away to the side.
‘No thanks, Mel, I’m almost done now. I just have to deliver the bloody thing.’
‘Need any company? I’ll come with you if you like.’
‘Thanks for the offer Mel, but I don’t’ want to put you to any trouble.’
Mel pushed her body against him, placed a hand on his hip and looked up into his face.
‘It’s no trouble.’
Stephen tried to back off again but found himself pressed tight up against the wall. He lifted his hands in a defensive posture, then thinking that she might get the wrong idea, stuck them in his pockets instead.
‘Okay, boss, wrong time, wrong place, eh?’
‘Mel, there isn’t a r…’
Mel shushed him, stretched, and placed a soft kiss on his lips.’
‘Another time then. Goodnight.’
She turned away, picked up her bag and performed a catwalk wiggle across the workshop, Stephen’s eyes followed her every movement. When she reached the workshop door, she looked over her shoulder and blew a kiss.
‘See you tomorrow boss.’
Stephen wiped his brow with the back of his hand.
‘That was a close one,’ he said aloud.
At six-thirty he loaded the repaired computer into the boot of his BMW, locked up the shop and joined the tail end of the rush hour traffic. He pushed a Deep Purple CD into the player and turned up the volume. As he drove along the ring road, he began to think about a new plot twist for his novel. He decided it would take the story off at a tangent but it might make it stronger in the end.
As he drove through the council estate, he spotted a small convenience store and pulled up at the side of the road. Stephen followed a well-used path that had been worn into the grass bank and climbed the slight incline. The Mini Mart was the first in a small line of shops.
On the pavement outside, a group of hooded teenagers leaned against a wall talking in their own coded language. Stephen hurried into the store trying not to make eye contact.
Inside, he bought bread, milk and a large jar of coffee. The Asian assistant scanned and packed his purchases into a thin plastic bag. Stephen placed his phone and car keys on the counter while he tapped his pin into the card reader. He heard the shop bell chime as four teenagers entered the store and stood in a group by the magazine rack. Stephen slipped his wallet into his pocket, picked up his bag and squeezed past them.
Stephen felt six pairs of eyes follow him as he came out of the shop and began to make his way back to his car. He had only gone a few yards when he heard footsteps behind him. He picked up his pace but the sound of the footsteps became louder. When he got within five yards of the car, he reached into his pocket to retrieve his keys, he cursed silently as he realised he had left them on the counter. He cursed again as he turned to retrace his steps and saw the crowd of youths walking slowly towards him.
The gang came to a halt about six feet away. The tallest of them made a hand signal and the rest spread out to form a semi-circle, penning Stephen between themselves and his car. The tall youth stepped forward and ran his hand over the bonnet of the BMW.
‘Nice car,’ he said.
‘Look,’ said Stephen, ‘ I ju…’
A fair-haired lad with an acne covered face held Stephen’s keys in the air.
You won’t get far without these.’
Sweat broke out on Stephen’s brow. He willed himself to stay calm.
The youth held up a mobile phone.
‘I think you’ll find you left this behind too. It’s a nice phone this, I wouldn’t mind one myself.’
He pressed a button on the keypad.
‘Oh dear, sim lock, I wonder what the code is? Are you going to share?’
The youth took another pace forward. Stephen clenched the handle of the plastic bag tightly; the milk carton and coffee jar were quite heavy. He decided to use it as a weapon if he had to.
The spotty youth looked Stephen up and down.
‘That’s a nice watch you have there, I quite fancy that.’
He put the phone in his pocket and held out his hand.
‘I liked the look of that leather wallet too.’
‘Leave it Jason.’
Stephen dragged his eyes away from his tormentor and saw a tall, fair haired youth approaching.
Jason spat on the pavement.
‘We’re only having a bit of fun, Mark.’
‘I bet this guy doesn’t find it funny,’ said Mark. ‘Give him his stuff back.’
Jason glared at Mark and spat again.
‘Give the man his property back,’ Mark repeated.
Jason tossed the keys, then the phone to Stephen. When he spoke again his voice was ice cold.
‘You need to be more careful in future, you might not be so lucky next time.’
‘Right, back off you lot,’ said Mark.
The gang shuffled back a few feet muttering to themselves.
‘Get in before they change their minds,’ hissed Mark.
He walked round to the passenger side and jumped into the car. Stephen climbed into the driver’s side and hit the central locking button.
‘Thanks for that, I thought I was in real trouble there.’
Stephen pulled away as the gang of youths began to make their way back to the small row of shops.
‘They’re not as bad as they look, mostly. Jason’s the one to watch, if you can get him to back down the rest will too.’
‘I really appreciate your help. Look, can I buy you a beer? I could use one after that.’
‘A beer would go down nicely, thanks. The Wagon and Horses is just around the corner.’
Mark looked around the car and whistled.
‘Nice car,’ he said. ‘No wonder Jason fancied a ride.’
Stephen pulled up at the lights.
‘Left here, then right and right,’ said Mark, as he looked through Stephens CD collection.
‘Left, right, right,’ repeated Stephen.
‘Your taste in cars is a lot better than your taste in music.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with that stuff,’ laughed Stephen. ‘It was always playing in our house when I was growing up. You’ll find it’s all classic 70’s rock, apart from Snow Patrol.’
Mark rolled his eyes and shook his head.
‘Old fart’s music. How old are you? Thirty?’
‘And you are listening to Pink Floyd and Deep Purple? That’s sad, man.’
‘It is sad,’ laughed Stephen. ‘I have got a bit of Oasis at home, any better?’
‘Not really,’ said Mark. ‘Here we are, I’ll have a bottle of Bud, thanks.’
There were a few early drinkers in the bar. The current high price of beer had forced even the most ardent drinker to ration his intake and a lot of pubs had to put on happy hour promotions to entice customers onto the premises. A broad-shouldered man with greasy hair and an earring greeted them.
‘What’ll it be? We’re virtually giving it away until seven thirty.’
Half of best and a bottle of Bud, please.’
The landlord placed the drinks on the bar.
‘Just passing through or are you moving onto the estate?’
‘Passing through,’ said Stephen. ‘You were recommended.’ He nodded towards Mark.
‘Thought so, looking at the car. We don’t get many of those around here.’
‘So it seems,’ replied Stephen. ‘I can remember the estate being a far friendlier place than it is now.’
‘There’s good and bad.’ said the barman. He pointed to Mark. ‘You’re with one of the good, he’s a bright lad is Mark.’
‘He just saved my bacon back there. I thought I’d say thanks by buying him a drink.’
Mark returned to the bar and picked up his beer.
Stephen raised his glass.
‘What do you do for a living?’ he asked.
‘Nothing. There’s no work around here.’
‘It’s pretty bad isn’t it? Ever thought of college?’
‘Been there done that,’ said Mark. ‘I left with an IT diploma last summer and a fat lot of good it’s done me.’
‘Things will get better eventually,’ said Stephen. ‘It can’t stay like this forever.’
‘I can’t compete with the graduates. They’re taking everything, they even stack bloody shelves in supermarkets for minimum wage. My poxy diploma won’t even get me a cleaning job if there’s a grad lad on the shortlist.’
‘You don’t want a cleaner’s job, you’re better than that.’
‘I want to work,’ said Mark. ‘I don’t care what the job is. I can get a better one later.’ He drained the bottle and placed it on the bar. ‘It’s the boredom that gets you. That’s why Jason and his mates are doing what they’re doing. If they had work, they wouldn’t need to hassle people passing through the estate.’
‘You don’t do it,’ said Stephen. ‘There’s no excuse really.’
‘I choose not to. I like to think I’m a bit above that. They’ll tell you that they have been forced to do it by a society that doesn’t care about them. They’ll tell you that the system made them what they are. Society gives them nothing, so they have to take what they need.’
The landlord rang a bell to announce the end of Happy Hour and the bar began to empty. Stephen ordered another Budweiser and handed the bottle to Mark.
‘It’s the wrong way to look at things, there are opportunities still. College has to be better than hanging round on street corners, stealing from your own kind.’
‘Our own kind? You’re not one of us.’
‘Oh, but I am,’ said Stephen. ‘I’m from Scarington, I’m pit bred.’
‘I’d never have guessed,’ said Mark. ‘What do you do?’
‘I run my own business. It’s only a small enterprise but it makes a crust. My point is though, if the pit hadn’t shut, I’d probably be working there now.’
‘Did you do uni?’
‘Yes, but I had the same problem as you. There were just too many graduates and I couldn’t find a job in my chosen field. So, I ended up starting up on my own. It was a bit scary, but I got a business loan and the rest, as they say, is history.’
‘The banks don’t do loans these days, not even to businesses. One-man bands have no chance.’
‘I didn’t say it was easy.’
Mark drained his beer and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. Stephen looked at his watch and placed his glass on the bar.
‘I’d better be going; I’m dropping something off for a customer. It’s been a real pleasure to meet you Mark, thanks again for the help.’
‘It was nothing, I’d do the same for anyone. Besides, I didn’t want my little brother getting into any more trouble.’
Stephen blew out his cheeks.
‘I know. He’s hard work, but I have to try to keep him out of trouble. Mum would be devastated if he ended up in prison. She doesn’t know the half of it and I’m not going to break her heart by telling her.’
Stephen held out his hand and Mark shook it.
‘If you hear of anything, work wise, could you give me a ring? I don’t care what it is.’
Stephen added Mark’s number to his mobile and made his way out of the pub. Outside it was raining again. Stephen started the car and pulled out of the car park; Deep Purple thundered from the speakers.
‘Old fart’s music,’ he laughed.