Take a look at Slick.
Now there’s a bloke with worries, you can see it written all over his face.
The tired eyes, the twitch, the bleeding gums. Not a good look, is it?
You’re probably wondering what Slick has to worry about. I mean, he’s got money, he never spends a bean, he gets all the over-time he wants – his own share and ours. No mortgage, he paid that off years ago. He’s got a kid, a little lad. Bright, healthy, doing ok at school.
Slick is Soulless Boss’ favourite. He’s got the technical knowledge Soulless lacks, so Soulless feeds Slick the sweetest cuts – the best jobs, the favourable hours – just so that Slick covers his back. If Soulless Boss ever gets cornered by a question beyond his knowledge, cue Slick, always on hand with the right answer. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.
It’s unfair, but what can you do? Stamp your feet and cry? Spit your dummy out? Real life doesn’t work like that. No, what you do is you suck it up. Just suck it up. You take the shit, add it to the rest of your shit and you carry on. Slick does the hours and gets the money, we plod on.
The thing is, look at my face. Do I look worried? Not knackered, but worried. I know I look knackered, I don’t need you to tell me that. What I mean is, do I look worried? Am I a haunted man? I’d like to think the answer is ‘no’. The same cannot be said about Slick.
So what the fuck is Slick worrying about then?
Well, the thing he likes most is the thing that worries him.
Before Slick got into this game in the late eighties, the reprographics game, he worked the burger vans. As a teenage lad he’d be flipping burgers at the fairs and the racecourses, firing mustard onto oily hotdogs, shovelling mountains of fried onions on dirty hotplates, selling warm pop for a quid a can. He worked long hours but he didn’t care, Slick was never shy of a long shift as long as money was involved.
He worked for a bloke called Salmonella Joe, a man who had the burger rights to all the major events in the West Yorkshire region. You got a burger at a race meet, fairground, football match or town on a Saturday night, you’d be eating a Salmonella Joe burger, and God help you.
Salmonella Joe got that dubious title after putting on the catering for a two day meet at a northern racecourse. He left the vans parked up overnight at the event, the power switched off to the fridges to save a bit of money, and come the morning the vans reeked off rotting meat and were crawling with flies.
He had Slick and his mates clean up, air out the vans, and fry those burgers.
The story was in all the papers. Hundreds fell ill, a couple of old people died later on. It cost Salmonella Joe a fair bit more than the price of a few burgers to keep his name away from the scandal, and even more to ensure his vans were still the only ones at the racecourses. He made his money back, though. Salmonella Joe always made his money back.
For a while Slick worked the vans as well as holding down the reprographics job. He’d work twelve hour shifts then do six hours on a van in the evenings, ten hours selling burgers on a weekend. Work, work, work. When he wasn’t working he was getting into the rave scene, popping pills and powders and gurning around to Acid House at Back to Basics, The Warehouse, The Hacienda.
I often wondered when he slept. The numbers didn’t add up. Soon, though, the truth made itself apparent. Weight loss, bleeding gums, staring eyes, all gave away Slick’s little game. The party potions were slipping their way into his everyday life. Speed was his poison of choice, of a grade so fine it sometimes made his nipples bleed. Pink Champagne, he called it. There were rumours he was into much, much stronger stuff, but all I saw was the speed.
Something had to give. It couldn’t go on forever.
Slick came in looking shocked one day, looking whiter than usual. He cornered me in the darkroom, wanting to talk to someone, and as I developed film in the dim red light he told me all about it.
Salmonella Joe was dead. His stranglehold on the hotdog stands and burger vans had made him some very serious enemies, and it had all come to a head the previous night. Joe had the day’s takings with him, thousands in cash, and he’d taken them home. Very foolish, but who in their right mind would mug Salmonella Joe? He got out of his Jaguar that evening and was confronted by two masked men. He tried to brave it out, put on the hard man act, but an act can only go so far.
The men shoved him to the ground and shot him in both knees with a sawn-off shotgun. they let Joe take this in, let him savour the moment, then they blew his brains out, right there on his own driveway.
I could see why Slick was so rattled. A nasty business, and besides, he’d been making a tidy sum on the vans, tax free.
But there was more, something that was really worrying Slick.
The thing was, Slick wasn’t the only one dodging the tax man. Salmonella Joe had failed to declare a significant portion of his takings and the man from the Inland Revenue had been showing an unhealthy interest in Joe’s rather sketchy accounts. Food poisoning, intimidation and kick-backs were all par for the course in the burger game, but if you don’t pay your taxes you can find yourself in Armley nick before you can say ‘Extra Mustard’.
Salmonella Joe had a lot of money he needed to hide and quick, so he hatched a little plan.
He took his most trusted burger boys to the bank. He had each of them open up a little bank account and deposit ten thousand pounds in it. Now remember, this was a 1980’s ten thousand, not some pissy little 2014 ten thousand. It was a lot of money.
He gave each of the lads a couple of hundred in hush money and told them to forget about those bank accounts until old Joe came calling.
But now old Joe was dead and Slick was worried.
I told him, forget it. Leave the money there and forget it. If you hear nothing in ten years, maybe think about it again, but until then just leave well alone.
Slick looked a little less worried.
Well, ten years didn’t go by. Maybe it was six, seven months.
Slick had thrown all his energies at reprographics now that burgers were gone, and he often worked 24 hours straight through, with a little help from his chemical friends. Sometimes he put in 48 hour shifts. These were busy times in the trade and rules were slack.
Slick got skinnier, his gums got bloodier, his eyes got wider.
And then he got visitors.
We were working as normal when reception buzzed down. Soulless Boss gave Slick the shout: there were two men in reception, policemen.
What little colour there was in Slick’s face just drained away as he slowly walked out of the room.
He was gone an hour, maybe more. When he came back he was silent.
Slick said nothing until I went to the dark room. He followed me in.
He told me what happened. He told me about the two men in dark suits, polite and professional. They asked if there was somewhere private they could talk and the receptionists led them to a small conference room and closed the door.
The men asked Slick about Salmonella Joe, everything he could tell them about him. They asked if he had any ideas about who killed Joe, if anyone had said they thought about doing it, any thoughts on who would do it. Slick answered as best he could, but then he noticed something. The men didn’t write anything down. They just listened very, very carefully.
Slick plucked up the courage to ask if they were policemen. The men answered, no, we are not policemen.
And suddenly, Slick realised he was in the presence of Death.
Death had walked off the street into a shabby little print factory in Leeds. Death had summoned Slick to a conference, to talk about one death so He might arrange another. Death had been hired posthumously by Salmonella Joe to avenge him, and now it was on the wing, searching.
Slick felt faint. One of the men adjusted his jacket, revealing something concealed beneath. They urged Slick to think, to be sure he could tell them nothing else, but Slick could not. All he could think of was Death.
The men quietly left.
I asked Slick if he’d mentioned the money, the ten thousand, but he said he didn’t.
I told him I thought he was a fucking idiot. I said they might think he killed Joe for the money.
But all Slick said was, that money is mine now.
People died over the next year, some in accidents, some by the hands of others. Nothing was linked to Salmonella Joe, not directly.
Slick was off sick for a while, after he took a beating in town one Saturday.
He would occasionally come to work with a black eye, a limp, a missing tooth.
For a while he disappeared altogether.
When he came back he said he’d been ill, and he looked it.
And now look at him.
He’s doing alright, I suppose. Kicked the hard drugs in favour of a weed habit, doesn’t drink, financially secure. He paid off his house with a large chunk of money, not so long back. His lad is on the school football team.
Slick doesn’t go out. He works, he goes home, he locks the door.
He used to walk the dog around a local dam, but he said he thought he saw someone watching him from the trees so he doesn’t walk the dog anymore.
He’s got poor health, has Slick. The nineties took it’s toll on a lot of people, destroyed their health. Slick takes a lot of medication, needs a lot of pills. Sometimes he’s off work for weeks.
But now look at him.
Now he doesn’t come to work at all.
I heard his wife found him stood outside in his bare feet, muttering at the moon. He was saying that his feet were on fire. A bit later he moved back in with his mum and dad, God only knows what happened to his wife and his kid and his house.
The factory let Slick go, and no-one has heard from him since.
I suppose he’s just waiting for Death.