by Andrew Foote
"Hands behind your heads and heads between your knees; we're going through those gates, so brace yourselves!"
Oh man, did we ever hit the gates, but then the noise of the car's body panels tearing to pieces was overtaken by the ML's powerful brakes locking all four wheels as it shot across the lane before nose-diving into a ditch. The bull-bars bent backwards shattering the radiator grill and pushing the three twelve-inch cooling fans into the radiator, shredding it and sending clouds of steam skywards.
"Nice one Pip. Remind me not to let you test drive anything else I might buy."
"Needs Must as they say, but now, and if you're up for it, it's back to the Astra so I can think about our next move."
"I'm thirsty and I could use something to eat, so I'm going to nip over to the shop and get something. Want anything while I'm there?"
"Mineral water and a sandwich sounds good, but shouldn't we be on our way?"
"Not just yet. I wanna leave it a bit, then go and see what's happening, but that means you two having to cuddle up in the boot for a while."
"Huh? Why do we have to do that?"
"'Cos I'm the only one that no one knows. Callum…… well enough said, but you Ed, you were at the front of that presentation to the museum about our place, but I parked up in a busy public car park and stayed behind. No one will recognise me and anyway, I'm job hunting!"
"You're a nutter. A serious fucking headcase!"
"Callum my mate? Watch this space and be amazed!"
Pip managed to get some of those pre-packed sandwiches that looked as if they contained something, but actually, what there was, was just a glob of filling in the centre; oh and chilled mineral water, but it's mightily difficult drinking anything when you're flat on your back in a confined space.
Pip hung around for about fifteen minutes before starting the car and making his way down the road, but then he stopped and we could hear talking.
"Bloody-hell mate? That looks serious. What happened and is there anything I can do to help?"
"A momentary lapse in concentration, but no there's nothing you can do, but thanks for asking."
"You don't need a lift anywhere then?"
"No ta. I've managed to organise the recovery people and I can get a lift with them. Ah SHIT! My missus will shred my arse for this! I only collected it yesterday – it was supposed to be a wedding anniversary present to her."
"You must love her very much! An ML 65 AMG. The dog's bits when it comes to all terrain kit."
"You know a lot about cars then?"
"I know what I like, but then, I also know what I can afford if you see what I mean!"
"Nothing wrong with Vauxhalls. My first car was a beaten up old Nova, but it got me from A to B for about three years and even then I managed to sell it on afterwards.
You come across as an intelligent kid? What's your line of work?"
"Not long left school, so it's Agricultural College for me come September. I wanna be a farmer."
"Have you managed to find holiday work?"
"Oh yeah, if you fancy stacking shelves in a Supermarket or crappy zero-hours contract work which net you next to sod-all, otherwise nothing I fancy doing. My folks aren't made of money, so I'll have to find myself something that gives me hours, and also, something I can get my teeth into."
"I can do that, but it'd have to be a big spread. I work hard and I need the hours, so a tiddly back garden isn't what I'm after."
"Can you get here for Saturday afternoon, say around one o'clock? Come up to the house behind the gates that've been trashed. I have gardens that would keep an army occupied, and I'll cough up the money if you prove your worth."
"You've got it!
What's your name?"
"Carl. Carl Mitchel, and yours?"
"Peter Standish – Pete or Pip to my friends."
"Well then, Pete Standish? I'll look forward to seeing you on Saturday."
Pip didn't let us out of the boot until we were miles away from Wootton Magna, and even then he told us to keep our heads down.
He was playing a very dangerous game, but he was his old confident self when at last we were set free to stretch our legs.
"What are you at Pip? You're inviting yourself into the lion's enclosure here!"
"That's not how I see it. You saw the state of the grounds, and if he has plans to open the place up for…… whatever, he has to smarten the place up, and I'm going to be the one who does it."
"Yeah but what Callum?
I gain his trust by working my nuts off, he in return, gives me extra responsibilities until he allows me access to the house. All sorted.
It isn't going to happen overnight, but as we discovered this afternoon, it's not a good idea to go poking around without permission, so you'll have to be patient."
"I still don't like it. What if he tries to get you to…… you know?"
"Look at me? I have problems getting my rocks off whatever the situation. I'm skinny, my hair refuses to co-operate, I'm getting zits where I really don't need them? What bloke, no matter how perverted he is, is going to take a shine to me!"
"Have it your own way, but it still leaves us with the problem of where to tuck Callum away and out of sight before we get a visit from the museum bloke. The boat idea is fine, but we don't know if it'll float. It's going to take time to put it in the water, and if we hit problems, it'd be far better if we could come up with a Plan B."
"Yeah, and not only that, I'm firmly on the radar now, and if I stay around here, I'm going to get picked up eventually.
I have a couple of mates down in London who might be able to put me up until this all blows over; if it ever blows over."
"Call them. See if they're willing to help then.
Who out of all the lads are the most trustworthy?"
"Tiny and Mitch. I've known them since living on the streets, and apart from petty thieving, they're both straight-up guys. Why do you ask?"
"Well, given the seriousness of this situation, it might be wise to have someone else in the loop in case of trouble. If Callum gets the nod and runs south, we could tell the kids that he's gone up to Liverpool or Manchester. That way, if they get asked, they can only go telling what they think they know rather than knowing his real destination and screwing things up, but there's still safety in numbers for us if we have a couple of others on board as backup."
Callum thought for a moment. "Makes sense. I'm happy with that. If these fuckers are really looking for me, and if one of the kids is careless enough to get fingered, then it'll send Carl and his blokes searching blind alleyways"
"Phone. Does Carl have your number?"
"No. The only way he could contact me was by calling the phone I was given."
"Well, that's something at least. I suggest you cut up the SIM card and chuck the handset into the canal. You can't afford to have anything in your possession that could link you to him."
By mid-evening, Callum had his answer. He was welcome to stay with his friends in London for the duration. Apparently they'd been active in helping some kids in London escape from the clutches of people-traffickers who wanted to export them to the Middle East where young blond boys are traded openly. Quite how they managed it, Callum wasn't sure, and all he said was that the person at the head of this organisation was "Put out of action." Anyway, he was going to let the commuter rush subside, then get the first available train into London the following morning.
The next item on the agenda was to get Mitch and Tiny on their own so we could explain what was going down. They mostly hung out together, so as soon as they got back, we took a walk along the towpath.
"That's it in a nutshell. So far as the other kids know, Callum is going up to either Liverpool or Manchester. That way, if they are asked, they can appear unsure of his actual destination. Only the five of us know where he's really going, so keep it tight okay?
Tiny spoke up. "Anything else we can do Ed?"
"Pip and I are taking Callum to New Street Station in the morning. It might be an idea if you came along for the ride. In the unlikely event we get sussed, we can cause a diversion and either get him out of there, or safely onto the train."
"One other thing? You should tell Bubba and Ronny. Bubba's been a loyal friend to you Callum, and it might be a smart move to get an adult on side as well."
Callum smiled at this comment. "Leave that to me. You're right and I'd forgotten about Bubba. Ronny's been very kind to me over the years and I reckon he'd be well pissed off if I didn't tell him."
"Who's going to tell the others?"
"No one. We just act all casual for now, but if anyone asks, we tell them our lie and let it go around like a Chinese Whisper. No point in making a big deal out of this. So Callum's gone away for a while. So fucking-what! He's free to do his own thing isn't he?"
Friday morning at New Street Station saw a sad farewell.
There were no incidents, and before we finally managed to get Callum on the train, there were hugs all round, and a rather prolonged one for me. His final comment before he let go of me was a simple "Miss me Ed. I'm in love with you."
The drive back to Bishop's Wharf was at best, subdued. I knew well enough why I felt despondent, I was separated from Callum for the first time since doing a runner. He had become my anchor, always around to lift my spirits, but why Pip, Mitch and Tiny were downbeat was another matter.
I thought about this before I spoke up.
"He's going to be fine. His mates will look out for him."
Mitch studied the floor before turning to me.
"Let's hope you're right. People like the ones he got tangled up with are like a virus. They multiply and divide, mutate and gain immunity from prosecution 'cos they buy their way in to polite and decent society. They rub shoulders with influential people and worm their way in to their confidence and gain their trust. Before you know it, their reputation of being good outstanding citizens, and coupled with generous donations to good causes, buys them protection.
Maybe even if Pip does finds something he could use against this Carl bloke, who could he take it to? Not all coppers are bent, but then they might take the view that Carl and his flamboyant and totally over-the-top generosity couldn't possibly be guilty of child molestation, not to mention being an accessory to murder? A street kid's word versus that of a pillar of the community? Just think about it Ed?"
"That was you talking Mitch?"
"I know how to use words. Reading them, spelling them even; that's my problem."
"Well, I have to believe he's going to be okay or I'd go mental."
Pip turned the car into a MacDonald's car park and turned the engine off.
"Ed's right, and we have to work on the principal that Callum's safe, but then he isn't like that bigger threat to this Carl? He's small fry, and once they get their heads around the fact that Callum's left for somewhere else, even if they have contacts in other cities, they're not going to waste their time and resources looking for some kid who's running scared. Too much of a risk, a risk that might blow their operations apart if they get too nosey.
One other thing? I haven't got a fucking clue what I'm looking for. I don't know if I'll even find anything for that matter, but there's no harm done by trying. If something does turn up, then we'll have to think very carefully about how we play it.
It has to be bomb-proof, whatever it is. Turning it in, and to whoever is another thing we can worry about come the time, but not right now."
"We should get back then. I'd like to pay some more attention to the boat. I need something to take my mind off all this shit, all this stuff surrounding Callum and his activities."
"At least the slings held! How's it looking inside Harry?"
"Can't see any water in the cargo bit, but they laid floor planks in the cabin so I can't see fuck-all unless we take them up which, by the way, ain't hard to do. They never got around to nailing them down!"
"Take one up then. If she's leaking, we'll have to lift her back out or risk losing her."
Ten long minutes later, Harry poked his head up from the supposed engine room.
"There's water getting in from where the drive shaft goes out. It's not much of a leak, and otherwise she's dry."
"There's an engine in there?"
"Yeah. Just like the one we use for the electric 'cept this one looks like new."
"Another motor to recommission, but this one shouldn't be too much of a hardship at least."
"Yeah, but this leak might be a problem unless you haul her out pretty quickly!"
The next morning and a visit to a boat yard confirmed that the stern gland was leaking. Questions about how long it had been since the calking had been replaced wasn't something I could answer, so I bought gasket rope and grease and with some questions of my own about how to do the job, we went back to the wharf.
Two days later we were due the visit from the Curator of the Black Country Museum. I didn't want to get halfway involved in a job I had little understanding about before this meeting, so the boat stayed up in the dock and out of the water and my time was spent wondering what I could do to keep the kids away from the place whilst my visitors were here.
Actually, my worries were put to bed when Bubba mentioned something about a barbeque at a local haunt he visited. One of these blokes was celebrating a minor lottery win and everyone off the streets was welcome to go along.
The day of the visit saw just me and Ronny on the premises with him as the landlord and me as the registered tenant.
Three men arrived; the one I'd met at the museum, another I didn't know, but the third I did recognise as Carl, the guy who recruited young boys for sex orgies, and my guard went up immediately.
I don't think we got off to a good start as both the curator and Carl seemed more interested in my involvement, my background and home address.
"So, Mr Woolacott, that's a West Country name isn't it?"
"Devon born to Devon parents. Tavistock as it happens."
"What brought you to Birmingham then?"
"Family matters, and private.
Why all the questions about me? I thought you'd be more interested in what I've uncovered."
"Just trying to be friendly? Your accent was more Warwickshire than Birmingham; definitely not West Country so I thought I'd ask the question."
"My family background and business has nothing whatsoever to do with why you're here; where I live and the reasons why I'm leasing this building likewise, so perhaps I could show you around?"
Disinterest was putting it mildly.
"It has an historical interest of sorts. The equipment is of no value; there must be many hundreds of abandoned workshops scattered around Birmingham and the Black Country so really there's nothing here we'd want to buy."
"Not mine to sell even if I could. That wasn't the reason I asked you to view it. I need technical advice about how to restore it all and I thought I'd made that very clear when I came to see you."
"You'd be much better served by putting an advert in the local rag. There have to be retired engineers out there who remember this kit.
In short? I cannot help you."
Shortly after they'd gone, I locked up and walked with Ronny up to his café and over a mug of tea we talked about the visit.
"I don't believe they had any intention of giving us any advice. That curator bloke saw Callum when we went to see him so I reckon it was all about finding out if he'd be here and where he was hiding out."
"Quite possibly, but what I don't understand is who was the third guy. Okay, we know the curator is tied up with this Carl fella, but what if our mystery man is also involved and in what capacity."
"Shame there's no CCTV cameras around, Callum might've recognised him."
"I could try and sketch him; I'm a pretty mean artist when I get the chance."
"That's not a bad idea. I think it might be a good thing if all the boys knew the face, maybe one of them might remember him from somewhere.
I don't like this Ronny? I never knew living on the streets could be so dangerous."
"Well, if everyone uses their heads and stays put here during the evenings and overnight, you should be safe enough. There are no windows on the front of the building, and you're not overlooked from the canal, so just keep the gates secure and stay vigilant. Any problems, just give me a call. I have some heavyweight friends who owe me and they like nothing better than to get involved in a duel."
"No, seriously Ed. These boys are nasty bastards. They used to run with a gang out of Aston; their thing was extortion, fraud and money laundering, but never child prostitution or abuse. They dealt very quickly and effectively with any member of their organisation that stepped over the line."
"So like you're thinking man's thug then?"
"Violence wasn't their trademark Ed. Money was the prime objective, but if anyone put their operation in jeopardy? Bye-bye, never to be heard from again.
I believe their boss called it ruthless efficiency!"
"I'm not sure I'd like to meet them!"
"Actually, you'd like them; in fact, I reckon it might be a good idea if you did meet up with them. They might prove to be a massive ally with your war with this Carl individual."
"How come? You said they weren't into violence."
"No, they're not, but they have a network of contacts – people who know other people and some of them can be very useful. They have fingers in pies we know nothing about, so to have their ear can't do you any harm."
"I'll be guided by you then.
Thanks Ronny. I also owe you big time!"
Mitch and I attacked the stern gland on the boat; a job we could do while waiting for any replies to our newspaper advertisement regarding the workshop.
It was a simple matter to prize out the old calking once we'd worked out how to remove the gasket cap, but then we had to move fast as the water gurgled through the bearings.
We had already greased up the James Walker gasket rope, and after much cursing and swearing, we managed to refit the cap and adjust it so no water entered the boat, but that still left us with about two inches of water that needed to be pumped over the side."
"We need a battery and a twelve-volt bilge pump Ed."
"We need shitloads more than just a pump and battery, we need to get her motor fired, cos then she can generate her own bloody power. Get that sorted and we could do a bit of a refit, move her down to Ronny's, and Callum can come home."
"You miss him, don't you?"
"Yeah, I do. Much more than I thought. He phones every night and he's doing okay, but that's no substitute for…… whatever."
"Why don't we pull an extension cable over from the building and just buy a pump? Once the boat's dry you can work out what needs to be done."
"What's that to do with Callum?"
"Loads. Just think about it for a moment.
You want him back, well that's fucking obvious, but there's nowhere for him to doss that's safe. You and me get the boat dry, figure out what needs to be done to put her to rights and we get the boys to pitch in and help. You know they'd be up for it, and with you showing them what has to be done? Well, it makes for Callum's homecoming more realistic."
"Well I guess we could live without the engine for a bit; getting the interior fit to live in is the main thing right now."
Three days later we had a dry boat so we dropped her into the water and spent what seemed like a lifetime looking for leaks. She remained dry, and so began the restoration of the boatman's cabin.
At the rear of this cabin was a stove that heated the interior, but also fed an oven and two hotplates for cooking food.
This had never been used and the stone firebricks were in fine condition. The interior woodwork was Ash and had stood the test of time pretty well, but all the varnishing and paintwork was either very faded or peeling away.
Muscle-power sorted that problem, and together with a stolen vacuum cleaner, we cleared up the mess.
Varnishing was easy – the paintwork not so easy but we managed to make it look reasonable.
A piece of carpet offcut sorted the floor space and a lash-up of cables saw lighting and a couple of power points installed which signalled a green light for Callum to come home, but before I had the chance to call him, I had a text message from Pip.
"I need the use of your laptop. Call me after 8pm tonight and I'll explain why."
"I hit the jackpot with our friend Carl. I've been working my nuts off what with getting the lawns looking good, cleaning up the fountain and getting that operational, not to mention weeding the driveway and raking the gravel; it does look the business rather than some sad old stately home. But that isn't what I needed to tell you. He noticed the effort I've been making and instead of my pretend journey back home every night, he's offered me accommodation in the house. That means I have a set of keys and the code for the alarm."
"Nice work Pip. Have you had a chance to check the place out?"
"No, not yet. I've seen my room; it's like a palace, but other than being shown that and the kitchen, I've been too busy."
"You said you needed my laptop?"
"Yeah. I want to map the place, like an engineering drawing of the house, where the rooms are and a general layout of the interior. I might find something of interest that wouldn't otherwise be obvious."
"When do you need it and how do I get it to you?"
"Could we meet at your place in Solihull? Anytime works for me."
"I could be there for ten tomorrow morning?"
I could buy my own with the dosh that Carl's shelling out, but your machine has the software I need."
"See you in the morning then, but please be careful Pip? Just remember how vile that bloke is and what he's capable of."
"Always at the forefront of my thinking maty. I like life too much to have it stolen from me."
"So it's going okay?"
"Hard work, but yeah it's starting to pay a dividend.
I've asked if I might have a friend stay over sometimes; he wasn't overly enthusiastic, but relented when I told him he would pitch in and help straighten the house up."
"Couldn't be me. He knows who I am and where I'm from."
"I don't know? Get your hair cut in some sort of trendy style? Decent pair of jeans and shoes and he'll never recognise you from any other eighteen-year-old."
"Ha! You say."
"Act confident and look him in the eye like you're not bothered about talking to him. Works every time!"
"Yeah well, it might at that.
I miss Callum though? I wish he could come back?"
There's something you ought to know about Callum Ed? He a fly-by-night, a free spirit. That's not to say he doesn't has a heart of gold, but he's suffered in his time and seeks comfort wherever he can find it. I'm sure he liked you well enough – even loved you, but he won't wait around too long before he's on the prowl again. He's in London now; the heart of the country where the possibilities for someone like him are never ending. It's another life down there Ed, so you might have to come to terms with the fact that you've lost him."
"I thought that might happen the morning we saw him off on the train. It won't stop me from thinking about him; he saved me from myself that night and that's something I can never let go of."
"Lots of nice boys out there just waiting for you Ed."
"Perhaps there is, but finding them might be a problem."
"Then let them find you."
We had agreed that using my Christian name in front of Carl might not be wise, so I assumed my middle name as a substitute. Daren Anderson sounded good to me, but it was essential that we didn't slip up.
Two days on, and with our cover story honed to perfection, we drove down the driveway to the house.
Our story was that I had been taken in following the death of my mother – my father having disappeared from our lives some years earlier. This made life so much less complicated as it was partially true.
Like Pip, I was awaiting my exam results, and if I met with success, I wanted to train as a teacher. Again, this was sort of close as I had encouraged our boys into reading, writing and basic mathematics, but otherwise my background was that of your average kid.
Pip parked the Astra around the back of the house and took me through into the kitchen where Carl was sipping a mug of coffee.
"Morning Carl. This is my mate Daren. He's more like my brother than a mate really. Daren, this is Carl who owns this pad."
We shook hands, then he looked me over. There wasn't even the slightest hint of recognition in his eyes, so satisfied I looked okay enough to be allowed in the building, he spoke.
"Nice to meet you Daren. I hope you don't mind a bit of hard graft as this place needs some spit and polish before next weekend. Pip has worked a minor miracle with the gardens, but I'm expecting about a dozen people next Saturday, all of which will need clean and tidy rooms. Then there's the public rooms, dining hall and lounge, and if you do a good job of those, I might get you to open up the playroom and give that a spring clean.
Happy enough? Rate of pay is fifteen quid an hour. You book your own hours, so don't go overboard with them. I reward honesty, so remember that and we'll get on famously."
"That's very generous. Thanks."
"Not especially Daren? I expect you to have this joint looking the business by the time my guests arrive. That's a big ask, and a lot of work.
Pip? Can you handle driving an eighteen-seater minibus?"
"I've driven bigger stuff than that, so yeah, I can do that."
"Good. I have a driver who is going to get his marching orders later today, so I'd like you to step into his shoes for Saturday morning and collect some people from Birmingham. You go with him Daren. They're providing the cabaret or the entertainment for my guests, and I don't need any upsets. A fifty-quid bonus if you take them back in the morning, no questions asked okay?"
Shortly after, Carl climbed into a Rangerover Evoke and took off down the drive.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
"On the surface? A nice enough guy, but he's creepy Pip…… very fucking creepy!"
"Can't argue with that, but he's paying us loads of dosh, he trusts us which gives us the opportunity to go snooping around, so not all bad?"
"Get the graft out of the way, then go looking around.
What's your take on this cabaret thing?"
"I hope to fuck I'm totally wrong, but I think the Cabaret are young boys who will be providing the entertainment, and what makes things even worse? We're collecting them like lambs to the slaughter."
"Don't use that word Pip. I'm having enough difficulty keeping my breakfast down without you talking of slaughter."
"Relax. Nothing like that's going to happen. Callum reckoned that Carl hosted very private sessions if that was the agenda. We do our job, make notes, do a head-count there and back, and maybe report our findings, but at all times we play it cool like we're totally unaware of what's going down."
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