Rough Justice

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 24

Sanjay had, as usual, been right. In the bustle of a new term only Marcia remembered to say anything, and that was when they were alone in the common room, having arrived first at interval.

'Robert! You look great. Have you completely recovered?'

'Sure, it was nothing. A bit of smoke inhalation. Had a good holiday?' And that was that.

Everyone recounted the bits of their holidays they hoped would impress, and commiserated at returning to school. Lance slouched in and Robert's heart lurched. There was something different about him; a new malevolence. Distracted, Robert forgot to close his bag and his books tumbled everywhere, making him the last to leave the room. As he went out the door someone shoved him hard between the shoulder blades. He dropped his bag, tripped on it and fell onto hands and knees in the corridor, aware of someone standing directly above and behind.

'So, Brown-eye, your big nose led you into trouble last term. Got your fingers burnt,' Lance sniggered unattractively. 'And how's lover-boy Vaselly?'

Robert's flesh crept and stomach knotted. He jerked upright, jamming the point of his right elbow back and up into the soft flesh under Lance's rib cage, following it up with a quick left-handed jab to the same spot. With stunning abruptness, Lance dropped to the floor, gagging and gasping for breath. His diaphragm had gone into spasm. Students ran up and stood round in confusion.

'What happened?'

'No idea. He suddenly dropped, and started choking.'

Lance's face was bluely mauve.

While someone raced to the sickbay, Robert fought with himself, surrendered, rolled the enemy onto his back, pressed his thin shanks as hard as he could into his belly, then released them suddenly, repeating this several times until, with a shuddering of breath, a fit of coughing and gasps and heaves of his puny chest, Lance's colour gradually returned. By the time the nurse arrived, he was propped up against the wall breathing thinly. Everyone reckoned he'd had a fit. Perhaps he was an undiagnosed epileptic. He was taken home and his father informed.

'A pity,' said Charlie Kosich. 'If you hadn't known what to do he might have karked it. Not so quick with the heroics next time.'

Robert smiled, inwardly cursing his cowardice.

'Welcome back, everyone.' Mr Rands, obviously happy to be back at school, projected a slide onto the screen. 'Genre is the term used to describe works that depict the daily lives of an artist's contemporary citizens, but it doesn't mean there's no deeper significance. All art, to be worthy of the name, deals with more than superficial appearances; otherwise it's merely illustration or decoration. This is Breughel's Fall of Icarus. Who's first?

In turn, each student pointed out something in the painting. It delighted their teacher when pupils observed things that he himself hadn't noticed, drew attention to similarities and differences with other works, or noted an unusual bit of iconography that the texts didn't mention. Before long the elegant furrows created by the plough-boy in his scarlet shirt and grey tunic, the sheep and shepherd on the cliff top, the fisherman, the ruined castle on the rock in the extraordinarily turquoise sea, the square-rigged sailing ships, the distant cities, delicate trees and white mountains had been admired and noted.

'What's the significance of the title?' someone asked.

'Yeah, who and where's Icarus?'

'Icarus was the son of Daedalus, a Greek inventor. They were both on Crete at the time of the earthquake that destroyed the Minoan civilisation. Daedalus made wings of wax and feathers so they could fly from the upheavals. He warned his son to keep with him and not to fly too high, but Icarus tried to fly up to Apollo, the Sun god. The wax on his wings melted and he fell into the sea and drowned. Those tiny things splashing between the rear of the ship and the shore, are his legs.' Mr Rands indicated with a pointer. 'Anyone care to interpret?'

Not surprisingly, there were no takers. Their Art-History teacher was the first person to pose such metaphysical questions as, why are we here? How should we live? Can we tell right from wrong? He was also astute enough not to pressure them into answering questions before they were ready.

'By setting the scene in the sixteenth century, Breughel was telling his audience that the messages behind the myths of ancient Greece were still relevant. By reducing Icarus to a pair of vainly kicking legs, he suggests the insignificance of individuals in the 'great scheme'. In addition, Icarus had dared to approach, to know the Gods. The price for such conceit was his life. Pride comes before a fall. Beware of entertaining too high an opinion of yourself.'

'Don't bite off more than you can chew?' called a voice from the back.


Soon everyone had found something with which to identify - even if it was merely the pleasure of a panoramic view of the sea from cliff-tops - and the painting became part of themselves; never to be forgotten.

Robert sat through the discussion with increasing disquiet. Bart's car, Hyacinth - named after the murdered lover of Apollo – had been destroyed. Icarus was destroyed by Apollo, and Apollo was one of Robert's foundation cards when Susie read the Tarot. Was he getting a bit up himself and next in line for destruction? He mentally shook himself. This was ridiculous! He had never been superstitious and wasn't about to start!

Just before lunch, Robert was summoned to the headmaster's study. He presumed the time had come to test his story about the cricket shed. The guidance counsellor and deputy-headmaster were already there, uncomfortable in the leather-padded seats. Mr Pinot indicated to Robert that he should stand by the door. Mr Nikelseer sat wordlessly at his desk throughout the interview, as though barely interested in the proceedings.

The deputy studied Robert with overt curiosity. Looks the sporty rather than the studious type. Not bad looking - bet he has to fight off the girls. Can't see why Ian's so against him. The Deputy knew he stood a good chance of taking over the headmastership when Mr Nikelseer retired, so it was in his interests to keep the school running as smoothly as possible. He was keeping his fingers crossed that the headmaster would simply go quietly balmy in his office without any fireworks. He cleared his throat.

'Robert, you have impressed your teachers with your attitude and application to work. Unfortunately, two problems have reared their heads.'

Robert blinked. Two problems? He began to sweat.

'First, the business of the cricket shed last term.' The deputy sat back, folded his arms and gazed equably at Robert. 'Tell us what happened.'

Mouth dry, but ready for the question, Robert stated his case.

'That agrees with what Mr Boreham said. A brave and quick-thinking response. Don't you agree, Headmaster?'

The headmaster's head was at that moment buried in a folder of notes, but Mr Pinot nodded and affably mumbled his assent. He had an extraordinarily soft spot for young Karim.

'Now to the second matter. Let's hope we can dispose of that as easily. According to Lance Osbairne, you attacked him in the corridor this morning after interval, nearly killing him with a punch to the stomach that stopped his breathing. This charge, if proven, could lead to prosecution unless you can satisfy us that the allegations are untrue.'

As he hadn't given the morning's incident a second thought, it wasn't difficult to inject an authentic note of incredulity. 'But, Sir! I was the one who saved his life! I'd dropped my bag outside the common room door and bent to pick it up. Not realising Lance was behind me, I stood up, swung round and rammed my elbow into him.' He gave a demonstration. 'It gave him a pretty good thump, but blokes often get winded on the sports field. I knew what to do, and when he recovered so quickly I forgot all about it.' His honest frown of perplexity convinced the deputy. The headmaster gave a short 'harrumph'. Mr Pinot cleared his throat. 'According to witnesses…'

Robert's heart lurched, surely there weren't any!

'…there was speculation about an epileptic fit. Why didn't you contradict them?'

'I thought they must be true! I assumed my smack in the guts set it off. As I said, it didn't seem that much of a whack to me. It certainly wouldn't have floored any of my friends.'

'Isn't Lance a friend?' Pinot asked with alacrity.

Robert made a transparent attempt to keep his face empty of emotion and his voice level. 'Lance has spat on my books, called me an interfering black bastard, and given me the nick-name, Brown-eye.'

The deputy failed to conceal his smile.

'I have no reason to like him, but I would never endanger my reputation by picking a fight with him.' It had been a calculated gamble, admitting his dislike, but he had read both the deputy and the guidance counsellor correctly. They sat back, nodding in satisfaction.

'Thank you, Robert. You have been most forthright. In my opinion, the matter should not be taken any further. Do you agree, Headmaster?'

The response was a strangulated gurgle accompanied by an irritated shuffling of papers.

That afternoon Robert kept his head down and his brain busy. It was now more important than ever to retain his reputation for diligence and hard work. He still hadn't thought of a way to find out more about Nigel and Ernest, but he was certain they'd desert Lance if they could. After school, hoping Ralf might be able to give him a few ideas, he knocked at the storeroom door. The memory of Murray made him feel sick and a tic twitched at his lip. The door was locked and he was about to turn away when two shapes flickered at the edge of vision. He swung around, back to the door, fists ready to slam into anything that threatened.

'Hey, hey! Cool it.' The boys cringed as though already hit. ''We just wanted a word.'

'Who the hell are you?' As the meeting was too good to be true, it was probably a trap.

'I'm Nigel, he's Ernest.'

'Oh yeah, Lance's little drudges. Go and lick your master's boots.'

'There's no need to be like that.' Nigel's voice easily developed a whine. 'We're on your side. We want to make you an offer.'

'What? An insecticide cocktail?' Robert sneered at their suddenly white faces. 'Look, you little maggots, I know all about you both, and you haven't got away with anything! Even a couple of dingbats like you must have heard about the long arm of the law. And don't think Lance is going to shelter you, because he's up to his neck in so much shit he'll soon be as brown as me.'

Their grey expressions were like applause to an actor. Robert turned away with a snort of disgust. 'Hello, goodbye... losers.'

'Wait! Hang on! You haven't heard what we've got to say!' There was an edge of panic to the words as Ernest tugged at Robert's sleeve.

He swung round in genuine revulsion, lashing at the offending hand. 'Keep your filthy, murdering mitts off me!'

They shrank back in alarm at the almost hysterical outburst, Ernest nursing his bruised hand in shock.

Robert took a deep breath and made an effort to appear indifferent. 'If you seriously want to talk, come to the weight-lifting room tomorrow morning at half-past eight. I'll open the windows on to the soccer fields so you can get in without anyone seeing. No one's going to know I've been talking to scum like you. And no smart-arsed tricks!' He turned away in disgust.

'Promise you won't do anything till we've talked?' Ernest entreated. Robert nodded briefly without turning his head - mainly to conceal a twitching mouth and brimming eyes.

Sanjay and Monique congratulated Robert on his success with the interview that afternoon, but cautioned against further attacks on Lance. If he did it again, Lance might be seen as a martyr and Robert an aggressor. After discussing the following morning's meeting with Nigel and Ernest, Robert rang Bart to get his approval for the plan, to see if he could think of any improvements, and to ensure he would be behind the door of the weightlifting room.

At eight-thirty, Robert opened the frosted glass windows. Huddled beneath as though they had been there all night, were the two young reprobates. With an intensity that surprised himself, Robert realised he hated them. Up till then he had considered himself cool, able to take things as they came. He was discovering that there are some problems in life, which, unless tackled head on, corrode the soul. The boys climbed in and looked nervously around as though expecting a trap.

Robert closed the window. 'Go on, check everywhere. Look for hidden wires, cords, microphones, cameras. I don't trust you, I don't expect you to trust me.'

They gazed vaguely around, but had no idea what to look for. This wasn't like films and videos, it was both too ordinary and too unreal. Robert manoeuvred them until they perched side by side on a weights-bar suspended across a couple of supports, facing the windows. 'OK. What have you got to say?' He sounded conciliatory to give them hope and loosen tongues.

Ernest caught him off balance by talking about something else. 'Didn't think you'd smoke. Thought you were the sporty type.'

'Just shows you don't know everything, doesn't it?' Robert replied testily, giving the cigarette packet in his breast pocket a light pat and adjusting it slightly. Not trusting himself to speak further, he waited while they exchanged nods, whispers and nudges.

'Yeah... well…' Nigel cleared his throat. 'We've had it up to here with Lance. He's way over the top. We didn't mind bashing up a few kids for kicks. He gave us uppers, and money and stuff.'

Robert nodded, keeping himself very still.

'Well, you're right,' Nigel continued, his whine gaining in prominence along with his confidence. 'We thought it was just a joke. Lance told us it'd only make him feel a bit sick. Honest he did! He swore it! But he must've known all the time, and when Murray started twisting, chundering and bubbling out of his mouth, I wanted to throw up. I've had bloody nightmares about it.' He stopped talking and bit his lip.

'My heart bleeds.'

Nigel stared at Robert intently. 'Do you know what Lance did? I tell you man he's some sick dork, he dropped his trou and stood there flogging away at his fucking dick and grinning like a mad-man.' He nodded urgently at Robert's look of disbelief. 'It was fucking disgusting!' He swallowed quickly before continuing. 'I said to myself then that I didn't want anything else to do with the prick, but when I told him, he threatened he'd tell the cops it was us who poisoned the kid, and we'd get life. Because it was us who held him down and forced him to drink the stuff. But we didn't know it was poisonous - and now we wish we hadn't'


'Because it's got us in so much shit.'

'So then you went with Lance to Mr Vaselly's?' He paused to observe the effect. 'Catching flies?' he asked as their mouths gaped.

'No way!'

'The old woman who chased you away knocked someone's hat off, and reckons she could identify one of you.'

'No way! Don't even know where Vaselly lives.'

'I don't believe you.'

'It'd be some of his queer-bashing mates. No! Really! It wasn't us!' The boy's obvious sincerity and alarm began to edge out Robert's certainty.

'But you knew about it?'

'Honest! No! All he said was that you and Vaselly were going to get what was coming to you.'

Robert thought for a bit. 'And the shed?'

'Nothing to do with us, honest. We had no idea you were in there till Lance told us. You really pissed him off by not getting incinerated.' They giggled stupidly.

'Sawing through brake pipes?'

They looked mystified. 'I know nothing about no brakes.'

'What the hell are you here for then? Piss off.'

'To tell you what Lance is planning so you can get him off our backs.'

'Lance can cut you into small pieces as far as I'm concerned. I wouldn't even mind watching.'

'If you promise to keep us out of it, we'll tell you what he's gunna do.'

'You're not in a position to ask favours. So far you've told me nothing I didn't already know.'

Ernest's voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper and he looked around nervously. 'He'll kill us if he finds out we've warned you. Promise you won't tell him?'

Robert nodded.

'He said he'd let us off the hook if we did one last thing. Get you and Vaselly together. We thought that if we told you, you could trap him and we could pin everything on him.' His voice trailed away. 'It sounds a bit arty farty now I've said it. Shit, I don't know what to do.'

'When did he tell you this?'

'We went round to see him at lunchtime. There's nothing wrong with the skinny shit. But he's not coming back to school for a couple of days. He feels an arsehole because everybody knows about you beating him up. Christ he hates you!'

'Where does he want to meet us?'

'His place. He told us to tell you he'd be out of town on Saturday morning, and we know where he keeps his drugs and… and everything else he's done, in a secret church-place in their lounge. And we would show it to you.'

'I know about his father's chapel. What time are we supposed to be there?'

'Half past ten.'

'Half past ten, next Saturday morning, at Lance's house,' Robert repeated carefully.

Both boys nodded apprehensively.

'Fine.' Robert pulled a face as though he was considering something carefully, nodded, smiled to himself and continued, 'Tell Lance we swallowed your story and will be there. You wait there for us. We might come, but I'm not promising anything. If we get what we want, we'll forget about your part in Murray's murder. But it's a big if! Now piss off.'

The assembly bell sent the boys scurrying out the window, and Robert to the top of the steps where he handed his cigarette packet to Bart.

'Did you hear everything?'

'Too much noise from upstairs.'

'They unburdened their souls. It was perfect! Hang on to this and come round for dinner tonight so we can look at it. See you.'

The picture was sharp and the sound clear. The tiny video camera had worked even better than expected.

'That's certainly incriminating,' muttered Bart.

'It's under-age testimony from two kids who have everything to gain and nothing to lose from perjury.'

'It's better than nothing, Sanni. We have something to show the police at last. You've been very resourceful, Robert.'

'But I promised the kids I wouldn't tell the cops yet.' Robert's top lip twitched. His voice was pitched low – aggressive. 'And how about that meeting next Saturday?'

'There's no way I'm letting you go to the Osbairne's on Saturday, my son!' Sanjay was blunt. 'The way you're feeling at the moment, it will be Lance that gets murdered this time! And where will that leave you? No one is suggesting he doesn't deserve a swift trip to the nether world, but it isn't worth your freedom for the next twenty years. If you can't think of yourself, think of Bart!'

Robert looked at Bart, who smiled and ruffled his hair. 'Good advice I reckon. I'm not interested in being a martyr to the cause. Remember we decided last term to be victors, not victims?'

'I haven't forgotten, but I made a promise. We aren't stupid. If we go, we can trap him. As Dad said, the tape isn't proof.'

'Get real! We'll go to the police and hand over this video. End of story!'

'Bart's right. We are not equipped either mentally or physically to be righters of wrong. The police are.'

After a heated discussion in which Robert was out-gunned three to one, it was decided that Bart and Robert would take the video to the police directly after school the following day.

Robert tossed on his bed. It was insane. It was capitulation. An affront to his masculinity. He desperately needed retribution. Pride demanded that he defend himself, not run to others. Hadn't he suffered enough?

His brain went over and over Murray's torment and death, the murder attempt on Bart, his own near death in the fire, the tampered brakes and Hazel's horrifying experience. Despite the video, they had nothing! Nothing to positively incriminate Lance. It wasn't good enough!

He got up, paced nervously around the room, wrote letters and notes to himself, and turned plans and ideas over and over in his head until they were lodged like permanent recordings. When he could flick his mind from idea to idea and plan to plan, he gave a frown of exhaustion and slipped into sleep.

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