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The Muscular Arms by Michael Conway

© Michael Conway

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note: asterisk = italics

It ain't hard to earn a pound note in my line of work. All you need is the will to do it. If you can do things other people can’t - walk on a high ledge, say, or eat a cockroach, or put your thumb in a geezer’s eye, it’s all there for the taking.

Course, I won’t do any of these things unless there’s money in it. Who would? But once there’s a few quid in the offing there’s very little I won’t do, up to and beyond poking an eye out. So when some mug comes by and puts a long fifteen on the table, I ain't asking what for, I know what for, all I'm asking is who, and when.

It really happens. Every now and then it’s like Christmas. Some fool will drop a heap for whatever it is he just can’t do without. They watch a lot of telly, these guys, and they always think they know the score. Collar turned up, talking out of the side of their mouth, all that half-now-half-later bollocks. Half now is great, it’s like Manny from heaven. What they gonna do when later don’t come? They’re the arseholes trying to buy death in a back street, so they ain’t going to the police and if they were up to anything heavy they wouldn't be paying me to put the boot in in the first place.

I’d say a good twenty percent of my income just walks into my pocket from mugs who want someone done in or up or over. People will believe anything if you talk like Bob Hoskins. That’s all to the good - if you tell someone you’re going to break his legs you *want* the cunt believing it. Course, there’s always some dickhead who won’t be told and you have to go ahead and do it anyway, but I don’t like to work if I can get away with it. See, kicks in the head and busted bones are my business and I try to get what I want for as few kicks as possible. It’s better that way, anyhow. Skull fractures clear up a lot quicker than the fear of them.

All this went through my mind when Barney showed the kraut in - Kurt or Gerd or something - I wasn't really listening. Too busy clocking the boat. Looked like he used it to squash flies and it sort of caught my attention. I was trying to decide if a bottle or a Stanley had done the damage when he said the magic words.

‘Fife million, Herr Carfer,’ he says in this Blofeld voice and I’m thinking Five million? *Five million?* We talking euros or pounds or what?

So I give him the eye, playing it cool. Barney’s still standing there, big fists clenching and unclenching as he leans in, heavy breathing all over the bloke. If this bothers Kurt-or-Gerd he ain’t showing and I have to admit I’m impressed. Barney’s a big lump, cruiserweight in his boxing days and I wouldn’t want him dribbling all over me. He was rubbish in the ring though. Got the shit kicked out of him along with what little sense he had. Now he’s like Pavlova’s dog. If I say ding ding, he’ll pound the kraut to bits.

But I ain’t saying nothing and Barney looks a bit disappointed. Off he lumbers and me and the kraut carry on eyeing each other up. I’m a bit more suss than I’m letting on. Five million quid is my end of the take. Kurt-or-Gerd’s been all over town looking for a hundred grand to front it. So far nobody wants to know.

But I’ll listen because he’s got the right sort of smell about him. An air of confidence that’s telling me to go along with him, grab the money and finally - *finally* - put my feet up.

Turns out it’s pounds sterling he’s after. Well, okay. It’ll put my arse to the wall, but I can do it. My share’s worth fifty times that, more if I break it up and punt it myself. Can’t see me doing it, though. I’ll be happy with the five mil.

Kurt-or-Gerd is in for ten percent of the take, but he's too cautious to move the gear himself. I don’t mind his cut, it’s the price of doing business, but I do mind having to bring it through myself. I say myself, but of course it won’t be me. I’m going to need some arsehole to mule it past Her Majesty’s finest. Somebody good.

Course, finding somebody up to it ain't gonna be easy. Requires a bit of thought. Who do I know crazy enough and fucking rock enough to walk through Heathrow with my pension in their carry on?

Nobody on the firm, that’s for sure. Barney’d do it if he was told, but I wouldn’t send him out for the paper. And I can’t use some old dog on a shipment this size. All my regulars have got form. Customs swarm all over ‘em like flies round shit. Doesn’t usually matter - lose two or three and you’re still ahead of the game. And all you’re paying is another nail in the coffin, so everybody’s happy. Not this time though. Too much on it to gamble.

So I suppose it’ll have to be money down. More aggro. See, offer more than a snoutful of lala and mules get funny ideas. Seen it happen. This face I do business with nearly lost it all ‘cos of paying too much. Buckaroo just kept going. Lucky for him someone else on the firm tippled to it in time.

I learnt a valuable lesson there, though. On a big deal, you never let the mule travel alone. Don’t have to sit with it, but you definitely want someone else on the plane. Some loyal fucker like Barney who’ll put the leather in and worry about consequences later.

So anyway, I say yeah to the kraut, spout off some old tosh about how it’ll take a few days to get the loot together and pack him off. Just as I’m patting him on the back and deciding his Mars bar is probably from duelling the answer hits me. Mad Maggie. She’s this space cadet who’s been bouncing around the edges for the last few months, trying to get in with the bad boys. Now, there’s always plenty of slappers hanging around and no shortage of geezers willing to shove an occasional length into ‘em, but not many like Maggie. First off, she don’t look like the usual slag. Her clothes fit and she stays in ‘em. That suits me fine. She’ll look the part coming through Heathrow. Secondly, she ain’t impressed by the run-of-the-mill villain. I’ve seen her knock back blokes your everyday dog sits up and begs for, even when they tried coming the heavy. She aims high, and she don’t lose her bottle. Now all this is lovely, and speaks very highly of the bird, but I wouldn’t put me shirt on it just for that. Not bloody likely.

But of course there’s more. Much more. I’ll trust this woman to carry everything I own through the busiest airport in Europe because of the way she handled Vinnie the Fart. Because I’m almost certain she did it on purpose. If I’m right and if she did, then she’s my suitcase. End of fucking story.

It happened a couple of weeks ago, down the Muscular Arms, Vince’s boozer on the Mile End Road. That’s where the chaps have been doing their drinking lately and come Saturday night it’s a racing certainty that most of the firm will be in there, propping up the bar and pouring their ill-gotten gains into the Fart’s pocket. We call him the Fart because it perfectly describes the old bastard. All wind and piss. Always banging on about this big job he has in the offing. My balls hadn’t dropped the first time I heard about that job and we’re still watching the skies.

So I’m sitting there having a quiet few sherbets when Maggie walks in. Heads turn as usual, ‘cos she’s looking the business - as usual. A sort of groan of collective desire goes through the gaff as she wiggles up to the bar. Every bugger’s eyes are out on stalks and Maggie’s loving it. You have to hand it to her, she knows how to walk into a room.

‘Wot you ‘avin, gel?’ says Vince, waving a cufflink at Charlie, the barman. There’s no need. We’re the only punters in and he owns the bloody gaff, but he likes to do things in style, or what he calls style. Your basic old fashioned gangster. Always nicely turned out, collar and tie, foldie hanky in the top pocket and a wad to wave about. A couple of nasty scars spoiling his otherwise acceptable face, but they’re authentic - as supplied by Ron and Reg. Bit of East end pedigree. We were always hearing what lovely boys they were. He hadn’t done too badly for an old fart whose only credentials were that he once got done over by some real villains.

Maggie’s looking at him like he’s a bag of shit. When John Wayne walks into a saloon you don’t see some extra stealing his thunder, do you? That’s why we call him the Fart, though. He can’t resist playing to the galleries. All the attention Maggie was getting, he just had to bite off a lump for himself.

‘Give the lady a screwdriver,’ he says. Charlie’s already mixing it, on account of he knows Maggie don’t drink anything else, and Vince puts a friendly arm on her shoulder, runs it down her spine and grabs a handful of her arse.

Well, Maggie goes up in the air and the room just explodes with laughter. The stroppy bitch has blanked most of the geezers in here and they’re loving it. The Fart’s got this silly arse grin all over his puss.

Now me, I weren’t laughing. I seen the look on her face and it weren’t funny at all. If I’d clocked that look on a geezer, I’d have stepped back sharpish, but what could a bird do to a face like Vince, on his own ground, knee deep in thugs all just gagging for her to step out of line?

Even so, I thought the Fart’d be wearing that vodka and orange. Class bird like Maggie could go that far without risking a Stanley facial. Not a bit of it, though. She just picked it up, necked it in one go and now I’m thinking *Christ, she’s gonna glass him.*

All she did, though, was peep up through her eyelashes like Princess Di and simper, ‘God bless, Vince.’

I wouldn’t have been any more surprised if she had glassed him. Vinnie looked that way too, but it didn’t take him long to realise he was cock of the rock. Every bloke in the room had dribbled over Maggie but not one of us had even cracked a smile out of the arctic bitch.

Well, that was it. Vinnie the Fart went into overdrive.

Flash the wad. *Pint of lager, Jim?* Pat the thigh. *You know Maggie, don’t you?* Light the snout. *Here’s to us, doll.*

The boozer was cringing. I nearly stuck the nut on him myself when he started lighting cigars with tenners. Then he began telling her his Ron and Reg stories. Now I’ve seen the old bugger clear a bar when he starts on the good old days. Maggie just sat through it all, smiling the sort of smile that turns bones to water.

Everyone else in the gaff was sick of looking at the Fart. Grown men were all but crying in their beer. Maggie carried on pouring vodka down her neck like water. Vinnie loved it. Every time her glass came up empty he got to do his you-know-Maggie routine. Hadn’t quite gotten round to calling her his bird but I could see it coming. Daft old git.

She could shift her booze, though. Sunk a bottle of vodka before she went for a piss.

‘Rack ‘em up, Vince,’ she purred and kind of slid off to the khazi. Even the Fart couldn’t quite believe that one. The hankie he was mopping his brow with was bigger than the skirt she was wearing.

He didn’t lose any time setting up the snooker table, though. By the time she got back he was stripped down to the weskit, chalking up and trying to look like he knew what he was doing.

Maggie was a bit unsteady on her feet coming back from the bog. Her boat was sort of shiny, as if she’d washed it. Vinnie took one look and called in another round.

Course by this time he’s pretty well in the bag himself. Cracked me up watching him squint along the cue. Maggie wasn’t much better. Every time she leaned over the table the pub groaned.

Then she asks the Fart what he wants to drink. Vince doesn’t want to know. In his day, birds sat there and drank their lager and lime. On the other hand, he’s in to the elbows here and he doesn’t want to upset her.

"I’ll ’ave a drop of scotch with ya, doll."

I was still shanting the bar as she walked over, that come-on smile all over her boat. I looked at the smile. And I looked at the Fart. And I *knew* something wasn’t right.

A couple of shots later Vince’s legs started to go. He was game to carry on, but he could hardly stand. A couple of the boys tried to take the cue off him, but would he have it? Like fuck.

"Mawright, ya cunts! Lee me lone!"

The whole boozer was laughing again, but this time Vince was the horse’s arse. Maggie was still smiling as the Fart’s legs went entirely. He clutched the edge of the table but couldn't support himself. Maggie grabbed his arm to steady him and he sort of collapsed on her, the way pissheads do as soon as you put an arm out to help them. Apparently spark out but still managing to grab a handful of tit and a handful of arse. Maggie eased him onto the snooker table. Vince tried to drag her down with him, but it was a half-hearted effort. He was already snoring.

‘Somebody help me put him on his front,’ she said, ‘Don’t want him choking on his vomit.’

It’s a wonder there weren’t blokes killed in the stampede. Everyone had seen that little stumble as she came out of the bog. The Fart was dragged around the snooker table like a sack of spuds by every bod who fancied his chances of seeing her home. Geezers were squaring up to each other. Gangland wars have started for less.

Maggie walked away from it and up to the bar. I hadn’t bothered with the rush.

‘Buy a lady a drink, Jim?’

To be honest, I could’ve done without it. I ain’t shy, but the amount of headcases I was antagonising just by talking to her was more than a legover was worth. You don’t show that sort of shit, though, so I just said ‘Set ‘em up, Charlie.’

Maggie leans into me and says,

‘She sells sea shells by the sea shore’ and tips me this slow, saucy wink. I look at the Fart, spark out on the snooker table with a dozen psychos squabbling around him and I have to laugh. She put the old tosser away right enough and I’m thinking he’ll never live this down.

Tempers cool off a bit as the assorted psychos realise the point of the whole exercise has left the arena. One or two of them try screwing me out but I ain’t bothered. The boozing carries on, relaxed now that Vinnie ain’t winding people up no more. I ain’t giving it the big ‘un so I’m left in peace.

Me and Maggie end up drinking the rest of the night away. Finally she stands up, bids me a solemn and sober good night and heads off into the night. Not the slightest hint of a slur in her voice and she ain’t staggering neither. I think about going with her but decide it’s beneath my dignity She didn’t exactly give me a come on and I’ve got a mind to be the only bloke she don’t knock back tonight.

It’s coming on to morning and the boozer’s winding up. Charlie’s got the bar covered in empties and stools are going up on tables. I hate that. Stick your money over a bar all night and the least they can do is wait until you’re gone. I’m getting ready to leave, scratching around for the car keys and so on when I hear Charlie give out this kind of a screech.

‘Fuck me, he’s pegged!’

I look around and he’s leaning over the Fart, wringing his hands and generally flapping. I go to shake Vince awake and when I touch him he’s like ice. Fucking solid. I just stood there blinking till I worked it out. Hypothermia. Fucking snooker table sucked the life out of him like a stone vampire. We just sat around boozing.

What could she do on his ground? Not much. Just took him out like squashing a bug. And who could point a finger? I had to admire her.

If you can do things other people can’t - hold your temper when some old bastard gropes you, or your head up when his thugs laugh at you, or sit there casually, betraying nothing as he dies - it’s all there for the taking. Maggie is definitely my suitcase.

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