From the author: Two men and a baby. And a cult. And a brothel. And a knife.
‘Why do you have a baby?’
‘Long story, run!’
‘Stanley, what on earth?’ Richie called, chasing after his partner and the wailing bundle he was rapidly escaping with.
‘Less chat, more move!’ Stan called back, hopping the fence one handed in a manoeuvre. Richie had to say it was pretty neat, even by their usual standards. Richie did not enjoy having to run at little warning; he had thin, long legs that needed a good stretch, much like a giraffe, and spontaneous exercise was ill advised lest he pull a muscle.
However, running he was, after Stan and more importantly away from the shouts and footfalls that were now coming up behind them. They raced through the access lane and into the town, past dark windows and closed doors. This was not how jobs were meant to go down, they were a stealth operation. They didn’t even carry guns.
‘What did you do?’ Richie panted, finally equal to his wiry partner. Stan still had his tool kit on, black bag strapped close. He was also holding onto a car seat, one shovel palm gripping the support bar like a ladder rung. In that sat a baby, bobbing like a cork as they ran, little face red as a beet.
‘’S a bad job,’ Stan said, darting into a side street and dragging his balaclava off, setting the seat down and rocking the little creature.
‘Nicking a child usually is, yeah,’ Richie said, leaning, hands on his knees so he could gulp air. The sounds behind them had died off, they knew the streets well enough to get professionally lost if something went wrong. Not that a screaming baby helped with that.
‘Naw, I mean i’s a bad job in there, Rich, the mark. We were right about them being a bit bloody off, they were going to kill the kid.’
‘They were going to kill it, I heard ‘em – talking about giving sacrifice and getting rid of the body. Said to dump it in a black bag and chuck it in the river.’
Richie paused, standing straight and stretching his legs out to buy time.
‘You’re sure it was that and not some puppies?’ he asked eventually, peering over at the child.
‘Why would they be drowning puppies?’ Stan asked, affronted.
‘Why would they be sacrificing a baby, what are they a damn cult?’ Richie shot back, wincing when the baby made a squeak. ‘You’re sure they meant to do it?’
‘They were talking about killing her, swear on me life, Rich,’ Stan said, picking the child up and soothing it. It was small, still had the potato faced roundness that Richie remembered from his own youth. The new members of the care house usually looked like that, it was unusual that they got the older ones. Older ones were never fat, they came in all sharp edges and bruises.
‘Well what’re we going to do with it?’ he asked, the unsaid decision making Stan slump in relief. ‘It looks young, it’ll need fed.’
‘We can go to one of the girls? They’ll know what to do for that.’
‘I don’t think advertising around a brothel that we’ve abducted a child is a good idea,’ Richie said, shaking his head. God Stan was thick when it came to emotional stuff. This was like when he got bit by that chihuahua, couldn’t stand to kill it because it was cute. Never mind it was a load of noise and nearly got them caught. Bite had been trouble for weeks too, and they’d nearly risked getting DNA evidence left behind.
There was a reason Richie carried jerky now.
‘Here, give it some of this.’ He slipped a strip of the old meat out of his pack, passing it to Stan. ‘If it’s teething it’ll want something to gnaw on.’
‘She’s got a dummy,’ Stan said, tapping something plastic on the carry strap. ‘But this’ll be good if she gets grizzly.’
‘How do you even know that?’
‘I helped with Jenny’s small ‘un, when she was on the job. Got pretty good at it, sometimes.’ The image of a young Stanley Ireland bouncing babies and filling bottles was certainly something. It gave Richie a little pang in his chest.
‘Alright. We’ll go see Selina.’ The things he did for love.
‘Richie, darling,’ Selina said, throwing her arms around him. ‘Long time no see.’
‘We’ve been keeping busy,’ he said, patting her shoulder as they separated. Her office was decked out to her personality, all dark wood and plush cushions that wouldn’t indicate the industrial number of condoms or lube kept for business. ‘As have you, business is booming if the lounge is anything to go by.’ The house had been full to the brim with waiting clients, distracted in pleasant enough waiting rooms by pleasant enough company, of course.
‘Winter’s always a good time for us, people just don’t want to go home. Which I’m sure works well for you too.’
‘We have our peaks and troughs,’ he said with an incline of his head, watching her bustle behind her desk. Selina was short and chubby in that cute way some women had, smooth curves she dressed up well. He expected she also had a weapon back there given she ran the place, but she’d known him long enough to trust he was no threat to her girls. She’d gone blonde some time recently, her usual dark curls now ash white and tighter around her face.
‘What do I owe the pleasure?’ she asked, settling into her chair and putting her neat ankles up on the desk. Her shoes were killer, red soled with a heel he didn’t envy. It was a good look on her though.
‘We have a bit of a situation. We were on a job and Stan found something rather unusual. Being Stan he decided to grab it.’
‘Sounds like the Stanley we know and love,’ she said, smiling.
‘There’s a slight issue with it, in the sense of what it is.’
‘Hard to fence?’
‘Very much so.’
‘Even with your contacts?’
‘I’m gonna level with you, Selina, he nicked a baby.’
‘What?’ She blinked at him rapidly, batting her phone when it beeped at her.
‘It’s a kid. He grabbed a kid. It’s adorable, as much as they can be at that squishy stage, but yeah. A baby.’ He felt lighter for saying it, like he’d given confession. Not that he’d been in a church in living memory.
‘Richie, darling, why is your delightful husband stealing children?’ Selina hissed, leaning over the desk at him.
‘They were going to kill it, so he had to.’
‘Oh,’ Selina said, deflating, ‘That does make it a little different. He’s sure they meant to kill it?’
‘Positive, heard the discussion. Real brutal stuff with a knife, not just a pillow over the face.’
‘Jesus,’ she said, sinking back down into her seat. ‘That’s awful.’
‘It is, and you know Stan’s a softie at heart.’
‘For the right person, of course. I didn’t know it extended to babies.’
‘Wonders never cease,’ Richie said, bouncing his leg to do something with his nerves. ‘It’s not something we can exactly put on the market though.’
‘No, well, naturally. I’m sure the price would be terrible anyway,’ she said with a half-hearted laugh, massaging her temples. ‘Richie, if they meant to kill it they’ll come looking. People don’t do that stuff lightly.’
‘Someone did come running after us. I expect there’s efforts being made to track us down.’
‘He pick up anything else from the house?’
‘Silver dagger,’ Richie said and she grimaced. ‘I know, but it can be melted down.’
‘At least there’s some payment then,’ Selina said, shaking her head and fixing him with a stare. ‘Why are you here?’
‘Know anywhere we can donate a baby? Any ladies looking for one? The girls must have something going on.’
‘Oh!’ She let out a startled little titter, clapping a hand to her quivering bust, ‘You’re looking for an adoption?’
‘Just somewhere to put it. We can’t exactly wander into social work and drop it past. Not that either of us would. You’re a decent sort, what do yours do?’
‘There’s an agreement with some of the older guys, religious types,’ she said, stretching back in her seat. ‘Cross denominational, you understand.’
‘Just letting you know, we have a selection. There’s a baby window, a hatch. Open the hatch, slide in the baby, run off into the distance. It locks, and moves the baby inside so another drop off can happen, it’s all very professional. Not technically above board, but it’s better than them being left on the steps overnight.’
‘Sounds perfect,’ Richie said with a nod, stomach tight as a sailor’s knot. ‘Can you take the baby to it?’
‘I’ll give you directions but that’s as much as I’m doing. If there’s someone looking for it I don’t need them getting hands on one of mine.’
‘Fair.’ Couldn’t exactly blame her. ‘Googlemaps?’
‘No.’ She pulled out a notepad and pen, jotting down an address and tearing it off for him. ‘I’ll let someone know to expect a delivery tonight?’
‘That would be prefect, thanks.’ He stood up, making for the door.
‘Richie?’ she called as he grabbed the handle.
‘Come back around sooner next time. A girl could think you only want her for favours.’
Richie laughed, grinning over his shoulder at her. ‘You know you’re my favourite outside of Stan.’
‘Hm, always behind someone’s spouse,’ she said with an exaggerated sigh, grinning at him. ‘Off with you.’
‘We’re no’ leaving her in a box,’ Stan said for the third time. He’d gotten that wrinkle on his forehead, a line of disapproval Richie was used to seeing during arguments. Sometimes it was cute. Mixed with those reproachful, brown eyes it was making Richie feel old and cruel.
‘It’s an incubator – it’s warm and checked regularly, they’ll give her to someone in need. And there’s no risk of it coming back on us.’
‘It’s no better than leaving her in the toilets at the surgery.’
‘The doctor’s has CCTV.’
‘You’re right there,’ Stan said, bouncing the bundle in his arms. He’d mixed up warm milk and something, Richie wasn’t sure what had been recommended during his chat with Selina, and managed to feed the child with a bottle from the carry seat. ‘You’re sure it’s safe? It sounds miserable.’
‘Selina says her girls use it. You know she wouldn’t be steering one of her own wrong, she’s the best stable in town.’
Stan nodded, moving the baby to his shoulder to pat her back. Richie felt that same twinge in his chest, warm and proud.
‘When would we do it?’
‘I don’t know, she didn’t give me a damn schedule.’
‘Serious, Rich, when?’
‘Closer to dawn, while it’s still dark. Leaves her in the warm and lets us be away.’
‘Sounds miserable, abandoning her.’
‘Sight more miserable if she was stabbed.’
Stan frowned at him, covering the baby’s ears. ‘What if they give her to someone horrid? You know what it’s like.’
‘Stan, we can’t keep her. She needs raised properly, we can’t leave her alone in the house like a pup.’
‘I know. I just don’t want her somewhere she’ll be at risk again.’
‘You’re her regular fairy godmother at this point, love, you saved her. Let her go off to her happy ending.’ Richie cupped his face, smiling at Stan the way he did when he couldn’t find his voice.
‘You know I hate that word,’ Stan said with a soft laugh, kissing Richie’s palm. ‘You’re always right about this shit.’
‘Just bitter experience.’
‘That’s why you’re the brains of the operation. Alright, say four a.m.?’
‘Sure. Want me to do it?’
‘Nah, we’ll go together. I can make sure she’s settled, you’re crap with kids.’
‘I thought I’d been doing quite well as it happens.’
‘It’s bloody cold,’ Stan muttered as they went towards the address.
‘It is nearly Christmas, to be fair.’
‘You don’t like Christmas.’
‘Never had a reason to, but you can’t miss it can you?’
‘There is a lot of tat about,’ Stan said, glancing at the darkened shop windows. They were walking, so no number plates could be snapped on cameras, with hats down low and zips done up. The baby was bundled in the softest towels they had, much to Richie’s annoyance, and strapped across Stan’s chest. ‘Nice for kids.’
‘Makes me think of Jenny,’ Stan said with a sniff.
‘Natural to, she’s your sister.’
They’d made it to the street, the small private library they were aiming for nestled halfway along behind a tall fence and bundles of ivy. Nice and private.
‘Looks… alright,’ Stan said, peering, ‘Looks a bit fairy tale.’
‘That’s her happy ending.’
‘Let’s have a proper look.’
They wandered down the road slowly, making no show of aiming for the place until they got to the gate. It was open, as promised, with the hatch down a side alley, surrounded by painted roses. Stan opened it to see a low orange light illuminating a changing bed, raised sides creating a warm, crib like space.
‘Seems alright?’ Richie said, glancing around them in case anyone else was waiting to deposit something. A movement by the gate caught his eye, making his scalp prickle.
‘Yeah, I think it might be. It’s warm and there’s nothing she could get hurt on. Selina said it’s checked regularly, right?’
‘Hush,’ Richie said, putting a hand on his arm, ‘I think we’ve company. Hold on to her and I’ll look.’
He stepped forward, hand going to his pocket, as a body filled the space of their exit.
‘Gentlemen, can I help you?’
‘We’re just leaving,’ Richie said, glancing back. The baby had started to fuss and Stan was preoccupied, bouncing her.
‘If you’re looking to leave something, we’re here to help.’
Richie stalled, remembering Selina’s comment. ‘Who sent you to help?’
‘Richie,’ Stan’s voice had pitched up, like he was hurt, ‘That’s the guy from the house.’
‘Yes, and you’ve stolen something of mine,’ the man said, taking a knife out. ‘Hand it over and nothing more needs to be said.’
‘You were going to kill her!’ Stan said, one broad hand over the baby’s head.
‘You’re sure?’ Richie whispered.
‘Course I am, I saw him.’
‘Alright – get her in that thing.’
‘I’ll be taking the child back,’ the man said, stepping closer. He was the same age as Richie probably, well into his forties, with thick grey hair and a mean line to his mouth. ‘I have no issue killing you to do that, the cause is greater than some sentimental idiots.’
‘No issue?’ Richie repeated, feeling a wicked grin start to form, ‘Problem, that. Stan, do it.’
‘Don’t!’ The man lunged for them and Richie stepped into him, grasping his shoulder and yanking, holding him flush.
‘Never threaten my folk,’ he growled, bringing the silver dagger out of his pocket. He slipped it round the man’s back, jabbing it quick three, four times. They were all shallow blows, into the muscle, maybe a kidney. Enough that he’d hurt, enough that he’d need treated for blood loss. The knee between the legs was just for good measure, get him on the ground so a few well-placed stomps could be delivered too.
‘Easy, Rich.’ Stan was at him, tugging him back into focus. ‘Come on, let’s be off.’
‘Help me with him.’
They scooped the groaning man up, frisking him as they went out to the street. Stan plucked a phone out of his breast pocket and they used his thumb to open it, hitting redial.
‘Hello?’ a raspy voice answered.
‘Aye, pal, we’ve found the guy who has this phone down on Cathedral square, is he a mate o’ yours?’ Stan said, letting his full accent out, ‘He’s in a bad way, like. We were a bit worried about him but we dinnie want to call an ambulance in case he’s had anything, ya know?’
‘Thank you for calling. It would be best if we picked him up. Are you able to wait there?’
‘Naw, I have to be at work, mate, but I’ll leave him in the recovery position, a’ight.’
They hung up but did as promised, rolling him onto his side.
‘Better than he deserves,’ Richie muttered, wiping the knife down before throwing it beside him.
‘We don’t need a body to dispose of. The baby was hard enough,’ Stan said.
‘You’re right, as usual. Let’s go find a drink.’