This Time Tomorrow Noir Short Fiction By Dermot Owens

This Time Tomorrow: Noir Short Fiction By Dermot Owens

Dermot Owens, author of This Time Tomorrow, lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland with his wife and daughter. He has previously been published in Thuglit and Shotgun Honey.

*****

Dan Sharkey sat in his usual seat, back to the wall and facing the door. This had been where McKenzie, his old boss, used to sit. This was where McKenzie held court, right up until the day some guy in a latex Einstein mask walked into the bar with a Glock and pumped three rounds into his chest. Sharkey had vivid memories of that day.

He remembered the smell of the mask, how it made him sweat, the weight of the Glock in his hand, the look on McKenzie’s face just before he shot him. McKenzie always told him in their game a conscience was a handicap, a hindrance, and strong men made their own opportunities in life. It was great advice.

The mobile phone sitting on the beer-stained table in front of Sharkey started to vibrate. He scooped it up, but the buzzing stopped before he had the chance to swipe his finger across the screen. He knew, without checking, it was his mother. Three rings, and if it wasn’t answered, she’d hang up. She was an impatient woman. He placed the phone back on the table and made a mental note to call her once he had dealt with the business of the day.

He knew, without checking, it was his mother. Three rings, and if it wasn’t answered, she’d hang up.

The heavy wooden door to Murphy’s swung open and Billy Beckett staggered over the threshold. Beckett was his next item of business. Mulroney, a mountain of a man, walked behind Beckett, pushing him along with his shovel-sized hands. Mulroney dropped Beckett into the vacant seat beside Sharkey.

“Well, Billy. You’ve been a bit of a stranger,” Sharkey said.

Beckett’s gaze fell to the scuffed floorboards between his feet, too afraid to look Sharkey in the eye. He could feel Sharkey’s stare boring into the side of his head.

“So, where has my most loyal customer been these last few weeks?”

“Nowhere. I’ve been nowhere. I’m clean now,” Beckett said. It was something he should have been proud to announce, but Sharkey was the one man in Belfast he had dreaded telling.

“Really? That’s a pity. I hate to lose a good customer. But I’m a businessman, and if you’re no longer in the market for what I’m selling then that’s fine. We can go our separate ways.”

“Really?” Beckett said.

The desperate hope in Beckett’s voice helped brighten Sharkey’s day.

“Of course. Once you’ve paid me what you owe. Three hundred. I want it by tomorrow.”

Sharkey took perverse pleasure in setting unreasonable deadlines. He loved how people tried to bargain and plead for more time. The more they squirmed, the more he despised them. He loathed their weakness.

“I don’t have it and there’s no way I can get it for tomorrow. I don’t even have the bus fare home,” Beckett said, as he patted his empty pockets. “You’ll have to give me more time.”

“I don’t have to give you anything, you wee fuck,” said Sharkey. “You always managed before. You always got it from somewhere. You’re a resourceful guy and Belfast is a big city. You’ll think of something.”

Sharkey lowered his voice and leaned closer to Beckett and said, “or this time tomorrow you’ll have no kneecaps, and you’ll still owe me three hundred when you hobble out of the Royal on crutches.” Sharkey paused as he took a sip of his lager.  “Does your sister still live over on the Lisburn Road?”

Beckett didn’t answer but he got the message.

“This time tomorrow you’d better come walking through that door with the money,” Sharkey said.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of change. He pressed two pound coins into Beckett’s palm. “Here. Don’t let it be said that I’m not a generous man. Here’s the bus fare home. Now fuck off.”

Beckett stumbled out from the gloom of the bar and into the bright June sunshine, the two pound coins still clutched in his hand. He tried to push the rising panic down. He owed Sharkey three hundred. It wasn’t a lot of money to some people, but it was more than he could lay his hands on.

He’d burnt his bridges with everybody except his sister a long time ago. His sister was soft and would give him the money if she had it, but she was a single parent working a minimum wage job. In the past he had been resourceful, and he had always found the money. Sharkey was right about that. For years his conscience had lain dormant in a drug-addled stupor, so relieving complete strangers of their property came easy to him. It would be much harder to lay his hands on three hundred now he was clean.

Beckett had all day to scour the streets of the city to find just the right house. It was one in the morning when he walked down a tree-lined avenue just off the Malone Road in the south of the city. Every other driveway seemed to hold a BMW or a Merc. The low drone of distant traffic drifted from the main road, but the avenue was quiet. No pedestrians and no cars. He stopped between numbers eighteen and twenty. Both seemed like good candidates.

Neither had cars in their driveway and both lay in darkness. He pulled on black leather gloves and for a second he considered running. But only for a second. Sharkey was not a man to issue idle threats and Beckett was quite attached to his kneecaps and he loved his sister, so running was not an option.

He stood motionless on the pavement, trying to decide which house to choose, whose day to ruin. The seconds seemed like hours and the pressure to choose built inside him, but he couldn’t decide. Out of desperation he reached into his pocket and pulled out one of the pound coins Sharkey had given him earlier. He tossed it into the cool night air and caught it in his gloved hand. Heads he goes for twenty, tails he goes for eighteen. Heads.

Just as he stepped over the low garden wall of number twenty, he heard the murmur of a diesel engine. A car rounded the corner a hundred yards to his right. He dropped to the ground and pulled himself in close to the garden wall. He lay motionless in the shadows. His left cheek rested on the ground and the smell of freshly cut grass filled his nostrils. The car slowed and stopped somewhere nearby. The engine idled. It was a taxi. It had to be.

The seconds ticked by, the engine ticked over, but nobody emerged from the vehicle. What if they came his way? What if they were coming to this house? Would they see him lying in the shadows?  He could feel the panic rising again. A car door opened, and then another. The two doors slammed, almost in unison, and the car pulled away. He could hear heels clicking on the pavement. The low murmur of a man’s voice was followed by a woman’s laugh.

The footsteps were faltering, erratic. They were moving away. A door closed somewhere on the other side of the road. The street fell silent once again. He raised his head slowly over the garden wall. The street was empty. Beckett made a quick dash for the rear of number twenty. Using the light from his mobile he scanned the back garden. There were no dog bowls, no chew toys, so probably no dog. No sign of a burglar alarm and the house still had the original single-glazed windows.

Gaining access would be easy. He took his jacket off and wrapped it around his fist. He punched through the kitchen window and the shattered glass fell into the stainless-steel sink. Reaching through the jagged hole he opened the window and climbed in. He stood in silence in a stranger’s kitchen, listening for any sign that the occupants, if there were any, had heard him enter. Nothing. No creaking floorboards. No sound of movement.

He pulled on his jacket and using the light from his phone he moved out of the kitchen and into the living room, closing the door gently behind him.

Beckett scanned the room. The china ornaments, floral wallpaper, and mantelpiece groaning under the weight of family photographs reminded him of his mother’s “good room”. The one reserved for visitors.

Beckett was still planning his next move when he thought he heard a creak on the stairs. Then another, and another. Slowly, cautiously, somebody was coming down the stairs. He was sure of it. The floorboards in the hall at the bottom of the stairs creaked under somebody’s weight. They were just the other side of the living room door. He could almost hear them breathing. They stood between him and the exit. He froze.

The old Beckett would already be running for the nearest exit, pushing anybody and anything between him and his escape route out of his way. But clean Beckett, the one whose brain wasn’t swimming in illegal narcotics, was for some unfathomable reason finding it hard to make a decision. He stood rooted to the spot. In the light from his phone he could see the little round doorknob start to turn. The door swung open and somebody flicked on the lights. Beckett came face to face with the owner of number twenty. She was small, about five-three, with short grey hair. Seventy-five, if she was a day. But still, he didn’t run.

“What are you doing in my house?” she said.

“I, I…” Beckett had nothing.

Beckett held his hands up. “I’m leaving. I haven’t taken anything. I swear,” Beckett said. “I broke your window, but I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.”

He meant it. This had been a mistake. He’d have to find another way to pay Sharkey. He’d beg for more time. Sharkey would like that.

“You swear, do you? How dare you break into my house, you filthy wee hood,” the old lady said, without the slightest sign of fear in her voice.

She started to shuffle silently towards him in her fluffy carpet slippers. Why was she coming towards him? Why wasn’t she running, or threatening to call the police? Only as she raised her right arm did he notice the large kitchen knife clutched in her hand. She swiped the blade through the air, aiming for his chest. He could have sworn she was smiling as he somehow managed to sidestep the blade and make a run for the door.

The woman reached out and grabbed his hoodie with her free hand as he pushed past her. The strength of her grip surprised him. He spun round in a panic, instinctively pushing her back, trying to break loose. Her foot caught on the edge of a rug and she tumbled backwards towards the fireplace, arms flailing as she tried to regain her balance. He heard the crack as her head hit the marble. She lay still. Eyes open. Dead.

Beckett expected to wake from the nightmare any second, back at home in bed, drenched in sweat. That’s what this was. Just one of his dreams. Probably part of the detox. He wasn’t here. This hadn’t happened. Little old ladies didn’t attack people with six-inch blades. The room was silent, except for the ticking of a clock.

Slowly the desperate hope that it was just a bad dream faded. His gaze drifted from the woman lying motionless by the fireplace to the array of family photographs spread across the mantelpiece above her head. He’d noticed them earlier. He could see them more clearly now that the lights were on. These were the soon-to-be grieving relatives. Three photographs in from the right, a familiar face stared out from a silver frame. A photograph of Dan Sharkey with his arm round his now-dead mother. Beckett turned and ran. He ran faster down the tree-lined avenue than he’d ever ran before.

*****

If you’ve enjoyed This Time Tomorrow, you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.

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