A Very Fine Line
Wrong place . . . right time . . .
Seventeen year-old Liam Prentice was nervous. Nervous like he had never been before.
It wasn’t because of the scratch that he had put on his mother’s Ford at the shopping centre last night. Nor the tense phone call of that morning from his girlfriend, after he had left her stranded, following said shopping centre incident. It wasn’t even the job interview which had been arranged for that very afternoon at the local supermarket.
Yes, they were all possible causes for nerves, but not today. Today they were caused by something entirely different. Something much, much bigger. Something that could, in fact, be a matter of life and death.
'He's a creature of habit,' a man in the next booth at the Belgrave Café had just said. 'He'll be an easy mark.' The man was talking softly. There was nothing distinctive about his tone, nor was there any kind of accent, but Liam could hear every word he was saying.
'Yeah?' a second man asked. His voice was deeper, but again, without any distinctive qualities.
Straight away Liam froze. ‘What the hell are they talking about?’ he wondered.
'Yeah,' answered the first man. 'We can pick the moment and plan for it. Every morning he visits the flower vendor on the corner near his office, where he buys a single carnation. Kind of an odd habit if you ask me. Then every lunch time he visits the same delicatessen for the same sandwich.'
'You seem to have his moves down,' the second man said.
'You could say that. Monday nights it’s his club. Thursday nights it’s the same restaurant. He goes to the cemetery every Saturday at precisely ten o'clock and places a single flower on a grave. We can pick and choose when we do him over, and no one will ever be the wiser.'
'Holy shit!' Liam thought.
He couldn't see them. All he knew of them was their muted plans for... for what? Robbery? A bashing? Murder? He shuddered to think.
The Belgrave was a trendy spot, with an eclectic clientele, and located right next to the town cinema it was often busy. It was more nineteen fifties milk bar than modern café, but it was well loved by all those who frequented it. The booths came up to about shoulder height when you were sitting at them, so most folks could still see from one end to the other, or at least the heads of everyone there. They were built from old, dark timber and the tables had white speckled laminate table tops, accompanied by comfy padded seats covered in red vinyl. Across the aisle from where Liam sat was the glass topped serving counter, also made from the same warm, dark timbers and upon which sat glass cake stands containing today's dessert specials, and dispensers for straws and napkins. There was even a juke box sitting in one corner, belting out fifties tunes, whenever people felt inclined to feed it with coin. That was usually only when the slightly older set were in residence - those who appreciated those kind of sounds - while along the end wall there was an ever-changing display of artworks, all supplied by locals, hopeful of making a sale.
The booths ran along the front of the store, looking out onto the street through large plate glass windows, where trees bearing red and gold autumn leaves stood guard along the sidewalk. Leaves were scattered on the ground like an old patchy carpet, and as Liam looked out through the window a stiff breeze seemed to pick some of them up, swirling them around, before eventually settling them back down to earth.
It reminded Liam of the thoughts that were now swirling around inside his head... although these didn't seem to want to settle back down anytime soon, especially as the conversation behind him continued.
'So, what are your plans?' the second guy asked. 'How are you going to do this?'
'It needs to be done quickly and quietly,' the first man replied. 'Some place with few people around.'
'That'd be perfect. Little chance of there being any witnesses, and any sounds would be lost on the winds.'
'I like it.'
'Well I fucking don't!' Liam felt like screaming. He didn't quite know which way to turn. Instead he just held onto the mug of coffee in his hands, with his knuckles going white.
Between the booths and the counter was a walkway of black and white checked linoleum tiles, leading from the front door to the entrance to the rest rooms.
As he sat there, Liam tried to figure out just how he might be able to get a good look at the men. Glancing around him he looked across at the counter and noticed a waitress wiping it down, offering him a friendly smile as she did so. He managed to smile back, but was sure it would have been a weak one. It was then that he noticed the mirrored wall behind her.
After sitting up slightly he soon found his own face staring back at him, looking more ashen than usual, but still the same as always; his blonde hair looking unkempt, his blue eyes looking worried, and the fresh pimple on his chin standing out like a beacon. He was what you would call an average sort of guy. Perhaps a bit small for his age, which was why he was often mistaken for someone much younger, but he didn’t let that hold him back.
After turning his head slightly, he found that he could easily see the two men sitting in the booth behind him. They were sitting opposite each other, leaning forward and with their heads close together, as if they didn’t want anyone else to hear them.
Liam studied their reflections carefully in the mirror.
Just like their voices, there was nothing special or distinctive about them that he could see. They could walk out of here and disappear amongst the crowd and he would probably never recognise them again. They looked... ordinary, he thought. They didn’t look like assassins or hit men at all. Nothing like Antonio Banderas. Nothing like Sylvester Stallone. In fact, they both looked more like Mr. Parker, his history teacher, than men of action.
‘What do I do? What do I do?’ he wondered.
His guts were tying themselves in knots and he could feel a light sweat having broken out on his forehead. His mouth went dry, with his tongue sticking to the roof for a moment. An icy chill suddenly ran down his spine, which was quickly followed by a trickle of sweat. How that could happen, he had no idea.
This really was life and death. He knew that he just had to do something, but he was gripped by a fear that he had never before known.
Behind him, the two men were continuing to talk, but in even quieter, hushed tones. This, in conjunction with the constant thumping sound in his head, was making it difficult for Liam to hear what was being said. He did, however, manage to catch few words, like... kill... silencer... getaway... body... cops...
Liam just wanted to scream! Someone’s life was in his hands! He couldn’t just sit there and not do anything!
As he deliberated this problem he heard the little bell over the door to the café give a tinkle as someone came through it and looking up he saw the answer to his prayers, as a uniformed police officer crossed the floor and stood at the counter, waiting to be served.
The officer looked around, his eyes resting on Liam for a moment, before flitting to the two men behind him, then back to Liam once more.
The boy held his gaze, as if trying to send him a message telepathically, but the officer simply looked away when the lady behind the counter came to him. He ordered a coffee to go. A double shot, with three sugars.
A great deal can go through a boy’s mind in the minute or so it takes to prepare a cup of coffee. Liam hadn’t realised that until now.
Should he make a scene? Should he write a note on a napkin and slip it to the officer on his way out? Should he follow him outside and then stop him and tell him of the murderous plans the men have for their unsuspecting victim?
He was confused, but for some strange reason the simple presence of the policeman was helping. Finally there was help at hand and he was able to think a little clearer. That throbbing in his head was subsiding. The dry throat seemed less parched.
When the officer finally received his coffee and paid for it, he headed for the door, casting one last, curious glance in Liam’s direction. Liam knew it was time to move.
‘They say that fortune favours the brave,’ he thought, so he slipped from the booth, threw some money on the table to pay for his coffee, leaving the waitress a small tip, then headed for the door. As he placed his hand on the door handle he looked back in the direction of the two men. They hadn’t even bothered to look his way.
‘Arrogant bastards,’ Liam thought, as he pulled the door open, ringing the bell, and stepped out into the cool autumn morning, to follow the policeman, who he noticed was just turning the nearby corner.
Liam walked briskly to the corner, dodging between pedestrians as he went and glancing back over his shoulder, just once to make sure he wasn’t being followed. When he reached the corner the officer was still well ahead of him, so he broke into a jog.
'Officer! Officer!' Liam called, while running toward the man in blue, his heart racing.
'What's the hurry, son?' he asked, as he stopped and turned, then took a sip from his cup.
'Two... guys...' Liam began, in between trying to rake in some huge breaths. 'Back... there... they're... talking...'
'That hardly seems like an emergency!' the policeman chuckled.
'What about... murder? Would that... be an emergency?'
'Those guys... in the café... behind me... I heard them talking… about killing someone! Cemetery… ten o'clock… Saturday! Every detail! I heard it all!'
The officer looked warily at the pimply-faced kid.
‘Honest!’ Liam pleaded. ‘They were! You’ve got to do something!’
The officer studied the boy for a long time. The kid looked serious enough, but he really doubted that what he thought he heard was actually what was said. Still, what if he were wrong? What if what the kid heard was indeed just that?
After a moment’s thought he decided it was worth looking into.
‘All right,’ the officer said. ‘I’ll go and check them out.’
The two of them set off on the short walk back to the café. When they turned the corner they looked up and noticed the two men emerging from the cafe, laughing and smiling.
‘Stay here,’ the officer commanded of Liam.
‘But...’ he began to say, but the stern look received from the policeman quickly closed his mouth for him.
Satisfied that the kid would do as he was asked the officer set off to intercept the two men.
‘Just a moment please, gents,’ the officer commanded.
‘Yes, can we help you, officer?’ the taller man asked.
‘Could you tell me what you were talking about earlier?’ he asked, while cocking his thumb toward the café.
‘Why would you ask that?’ the second man enquired.
‘It seems you were overheard,’ the officer replied, as he glanced back toward Liam. The two men looked up and noticed the boy and smiled. ‘The boy seems to think you were up to no good. Something about a murder being planned?’
As the three men were talking, Liam crept closer, so that he could try and hear what was being said, taking refuge in the doorway of the shop beside the Belgrave Café.
'Officer, I can appreciate your concern, but honestly, do we look like hit men?'
'That's just it,' the policeman replied. 'Anyone could look like a hit man.'
'My name is Thomas Knight,' the first man replied. 'And my companion here is Jerry Watson. I'm a writer. Jerry is my friend and editor. I’m not sure what the young man has told you, but we were simply having a discussion about a book I'm planning and what was going to happen to one of the main characters.'
'All the same, I'd like to see some ID please,' the policeman replied.
'Yes, of course.'
The two men fished into their pockets. The shorter man, Jerry, pulled out a wallet and flipped it open, retrieving a card of some sort, which Liam couldn’t quite see. He passed it to the policeman, who examined it, nodded, then returned it to its owner.
The taller man, the writer, also pulled a wallet from his pocket. He passed a card to the officer, who glanced at it, then looked at him suspiciously.
‘I’m sorry officer, a credit card and my Writers Guild membership card are about the best I can do. I don’t have a driver’s license, I’ve never bothered to learn how to drive.’
‘You can vouch for him?’ the officer asked Jerry.
The policemen gave a sigh, then returned the cards.
‘Thank you,’ the writer said. ‘Sometimes there can be a very fine line, between fact and fiction. Wouldn’t you agree?’
‘I guess you could be right there,’ the officer replied, while casting a look of annoyance toward Liam. ‘Sorry to have bothered you. Have a nice day.’
As the policeman walked past where Liam stood in the shop door he said, ‘Maybe next time, kid,’ then kept on walking.
Liam turned back toward where the two men were still standing, studying him intently.
They said something to each other and laughed, before then shaking hands. Jerry turned and walked off, heading away from the man and the boy, while the man who called himself Thomas turned and faced Liam, before then walking the short distance to the bus stop on the corner.
Curious, yet still not satisfied of the man’s innocence, Liam kept an eye on him, though still not sure what to do next.
As a bus pulled in he saw the man again pull his wallet from his pocket. He took some cash from the wallet and shoved that back into his pocket.
'Well, it doesn't look like I'll need Thomas any more,' the writer said, then tossed the wallet into a nearby trash bin. He walked to the bus and gave the kid one last look, and a wink, before climbing on board and taking a window seat.
As the bus pulled out from the kerb the man looked down at Liam, smiled, cocked his fingers in the shape of a gun and pretended to fire.
Once more that icy chill went down Liam's spine.
‘Fuck!’ the boy muttered. ‘What am I supposed to do now?’