Thou shalt not steal.
Bible said it loud and clear, and it was God-damned fuckin’ right. One of them Ten Commandment things. Byron Alden ‘Barcode’ Codell didn’t know which one exactly, but it didn’t matter a damn. What it meant mattered.
Steal something, anything, food to survive even, and the thief would suffer in the flames of hell for all eternity. Assholes would burn forever.
Yeah, that’s right, stealing did do a person’s soul no good in the afterlife, no good at all. But, who gave a shit for souls? If that thief took from Barcode, bad things would happen in the here and now, right away. To hell with God’s delayed wrath, no one took from Barcode.
Ain’t no one gonna to mess with Barcode no more, and the ink lines on the back of his neck were a permanent reminder of what happened to anyone who tried to fuck him over. Barcode wasn’t gonna to take no dissing from nobody. No way.
Which was why he was aiming to climb up on the garage roof in the middle of the night, again.
Someone happened to be dipping his evil, greasy fingers into Barcode’s pie, and that certain someone was going to lose more than the same sticky fingers. Yeah, more’n just his fingers. The thieving pig-fucker was going to die.
Wrapped up warm in his heaviest parka, and dressed all in black, apart from the white lines embossed into his trainers, Barcode pulled the fur-lined hood over his shaved head. He cinched the string tie tight under his nose to cover his mouth. The side flaps and fur threw his face into deep shadow, which was exactly the way he wanted it. He popped his head over the top of the slatted, shoulder-high wooden fence, and spied the sloping back garden.
Nothing much had changed since the last time he’d been there, or since the old man’s untimely death. Such a shame, but old peopled died. Nothing shocking in that. Nothing at all.
Unlike last time, the place was dark.
This time, no lights showed from the kitchen window to paint a yellow rectangle over the shitty patch of earth that had once been a green and lush back garden, stocked with flowers and vegetables. Times before the old man took ill and his wheelchair became his legs.
Stupid old man thought he was still relevant, still worthy of respect. Not no more. Cripples were a waste of space. A blight. A waste of resources. A waste of oxygen. Should be swiped from the area, moved into homes, or culled.
But Gramps was pushing up the daisies now. Nothing mattered to him no more.
The old man’s grandson, Darwin Moore. He mattered, though. Still stayed in the house, but only on weekends. Never on a Tuesday. Darwin, the college boy geek, spent the week studying somewhere up north, which was the reason no lights shone in the house.
Perfect for Barcode’s needs.
Even when Gramps was alive, sitting behind his net curtains, in front of the black and white TV screen, he’d have been lost in Corrie, his favourite soap. His stand-in for ‘product’. Gramps would have been sitting with his back to the window and the sound turned up loud enough for Barcode to hear the dialogue from fifteen metres away. Nah, the old fucker wouldn’t have noticed an armed assault force scrambling over the fence, let alone a stealthy black dude in with a barcode tattoo on the back of his neck.
After pulling on his leather gloves, he grabbed the top of the fence and vaulted over, landing gently in a patch of soft, friendly mud. He scuffed his tracks as he headed down the slight hill. Although the old bastard hadn’t been in the back garden for years on account of his wheelchair, no telling when Darwin would venture out for a look-see. Didn’t make no sense to leave a clear trail.
The crappy dive—a two-bedroomed end of terrace house—had to be worth a fucking mint. Darwin should have sold up soon as Gramps kicked the bucket, but prob’ly wanted to keep it in memory of his dear departed grandpa and his murdered mother. Stupid sentimental fuckwit should be living for the moment, not dwelling on a half-forgotten past. The mother wasn’t all that. Shouldn’t have left the old man on his own to fly off on a hen night. Why Amsterdam? What was wrong with London? She could have had a hell of a time in the West End for the same price of flying to Dutch-land.
Paid the price though, didn’t she. Mrs Moore and the others who died on that flight. Served her right. Served them all right. Blown out of the sky in a fireball. Barcode smiled. Wished he could’ve seen the explosion for real and not just in some shaky mobile phone footage.
Man, it must have been a hell of a firework show.
Eighty-three dead. Either burnt to charcoal, crushed on impact or, much worse, drowned in the freezing North Sea.
Barcode would love to have seen it in real life. Such a buzz.
Ah well. Can’t do nothing ’bout that now.
Keeping close to the fence, staying in the deep shadow, Barcode crept around the garden, the tall grass swishing up to his knees, soaking the legs of his trousers. He made it to the rear of the garage. The metal wheelbarrow was exactly where he’d left it, leaning against the garage wall. He used it to boost himself onto the flat roof.
Again, keeping close to the end wall of the house and scrambling on hands and knees, Barcode made the front of the garage and squatted. He had the perfect view.
One of his own crew, the fuckin’ scumbag, was dipping his fingers into the till, which meant the take was coming up five percent short. Not much, but significant. In any other retail sector, the shortfall might have been explained away by bad weather keeping the punters off the streets and out of the shops. But in his industry, the clients would crawl over shattered glass and sell their babies as sex slaves to raise the cash to cover the next fix.
Nah, a drop in revenue meant only one thing.
Thievery, plain and simple.
He first noticed the shortage a couple of days ago. At first, he thought about running to Top Man, but that would only have reflected badly on Barcode. It would prob’ly have dropped him well and truly in the slime. No telling what TM would have done. The invisible fucker might even put the evil eye on Barcode for dropping the ball. After all, the thievery was happening on one of Barcode’s pitches, which made him responsible for clearing up his own mess. In the end, Barcode made up the shortfall from his personal cut, but that couldn’t last forever. If the thief kept getting away with it, he’d only get greedier. Eventually, Barcode wouldn’t be able to cover the losses and that wouldn’t do. Not at all.
It had to stop.
If he didn’t flush out the scumbag and deal with him before TM sussed out the losses, he might decide Barcode wasn’t up to the task of running his own crew. And that would put a cramp on his plans to move up in the Tribe and reach his ultimate long term goal.
Move TM aside, and take over.
Complete and utter domination. The only thing that mattered to Barcode, but he played the long game.
Barcode sucked air between his teeth, smiled and settled down to study one third of his crew. This week’s evening shift. If he’d worked it out correctly, it wouldn’t take long.
He pulled a pair of stolen binoculars from the pocket of his parka and sat cross-legged on the tar-covered roof, hidden deep in the shadows. He raised the glasses to his eyes and started spying.
As he watched, his anger built.
He fed on it. Used it. Enjoyed it.
If emotions made the man, Barcode, was a man built of fire and rage. The world saw him for what he was, big, powerful, angry. But there was more. Below the surface, hidden deep, lay ambition and a brain to take him to where he wanted to be—and a street level middle manager wasn’t nearly the place.
He’d go further. Much further.
Barcode was going to the top. Wouldn’t be easy. There were plenty of faces standing between him and TM’s place. Yeah, there were plenty of wannabes, but none with Barcode’s patience or smarts.
No one in the Tribe knew it, but Barcode had learning to go along with his street smarts. A Grade A pupil at school, he was, but to the wider world, he looked like nothing more than a hired hand, a mini-Goon, the leader of a small crew. A bit part in the bigger game. Not for long, though.
Not for fucking long.
To TM and his lieutenants, the Goons, Barcode wasn’t nothing special, not yet. But deep down, inside, Barcode knew he was worth more. Even his handle meant more than he let on. The tat on the back of his neck—the barcode that gave him his tag—actually meant something. It wasn’t just a random load of fat and thin vertical lines. Oh no.
Seemed like a good idea at the time.
At aged twelve, he’s been enraptured by a movie about a hired assassin who wore a barcode tattoo on the back of his neck. The young Byron wanted one of his own. Thought it would be cool. Saved up his trading money for months and spent hours each week in the school gym, building his muscles and his reflexes.
According to the rat-faced, broken-toothed tattoo artist who inked him, the vertical black lines he’d etched into young Byron’s dark skin showed nothing but his name, as Hitman #48 and his date of birth.
‘Barcode’ was born that day, and he was totally fucking psyched. But, weeks later and after the scabs had healed, when he ran a Tesco’s barcode reader over the lines, the code spewed out a different result. It spewed out an insult to his mother and her love life. Although fired up and spitting nails, Barcode never told no one about how he’d been fucked over. Kept it to himself. Never allowed no one to run a scanner over the tat again, neither. Nobody could never accuse Barcode of being shit at keeping secrets.
Months later, someone out walking their dog found the same rat-faced, heartless fucker who thought it funny to play games with his needle gun and mess with a teenage kid. They found him floating face down in the Thames, missing his eyes—and his heart.
Barcode didn’t tell no one he’d done the deed, neither.
Yeah, Byron ‘Barcode’ Cordell could keep a secret all right.
Since then, he could have paid another inker to cover the lines, change them, but he left it untouched as a lesson to himself not to be so stupid again. And, besides, Barcode was, as the tat actually said, a hard-assed Motherfucker.
To fucking right I am. And ain’t nobody gonna say different.
In the dark and the cold, Barcode watched and waited.
Brutus. It fucking well had to be Brutus.
Couldn’t have been no one else. No one else on his crew had the bottle.
The minute he discovered the pilferage, Barcode knew it had to be Brutus, the third mini-leader of his posse.
It had only taken a few seconds to rule out everyone else.
First, he cleared Petey. No way his blood, his bruv, would do anything to drop Barcode in the brown stuff. They’d known each other since nursery. Grown up together. Petey was as honest as any drug dealer had a right to be. Petey would die for Barcode and, what’s more, Barcode would let him.
As for Rhino, the second stringer, Barcode cleared him almost as fast as he cleared Petey. Rhino, didn’t have the stones, or the need. The musclebound cretin didn’t partake of the product, not even occasionally. Fine upstanding member of the Tribe, he was. Didn’t even smoke normal cigarettes. Treated his body as a temple, and worshiped his pregnant squeeze, Ariel. Top of all that was the clincher, Rhino didn’t have the smarts to rip anyone off without giving himself away in seconds.
That left Brutus. The third wheel. The third deputy. The bastard in charge of the pitch Barcode was watching through the binoculars.
You stupid, greedy, selfish fucker.
He had to go, but …
Barcode couldn’t deal with the thief without proof. The Tribe had its rules, and any member who pointed an accusing finger without proof was liable to find himself in as much trouble as the accused.
Nah, Barcode needed evidence, which was how come he ended up sitting, cross-legged, on the flat garage roof freezing his nuts off, risking butt cramp and piles.
As it happened, it only took twenty-five minutes to eyeball the act.
Barcode spotted it when the fifth customer of the evening handed across her small bundle of creased notes—probably earned from lying on her back and spreading her scrawny legs. As the bitch scurried away, her daily fix held tight in a greedy fist, Brutus handed the cash to his rider, Lil’ Aran, who slid the notes into his backpack.
Lil’ Aran, ten years old, no more, spent the shift pedalling up and down the lanes between all the pitches, ready to make a lightning split the moment the pigs shoved their noses into Tribe business.
The routine was slick and simple. Barcode designed it for the purpose and it worked real well.
Money passes from customer to dealer—in this case, Brutus.
Dealer tips the nod to rider.
Rider—in this case Lil’ Aran—rolls up on his BMX, takes cash, hands product to Brutus and buggers of up the lane in a flat out, wheel spinning sprint.
Dealer passes product to junkie.
Junkie buggers off, happy as shit, transaction complete, and no outsider any the wiser.
Only, this time, while the client buggers off, baggie in her hot little fist and Lil’ Aran sprints away, Brutus stoops to tie his shoelace.
Again, no real issue, but, through the high-powered binoculars, Barcode couldn’t see nothing wrong with the piggin’ laces. They sure didn’t seems loose to him.
First time it happened, Barcode didn’t think nothing of it. After all, no self-respecting crewman would allow his brilliant white laces to go slopping in the puddles, but seven deals later, same thing happened again, this time with the other shoe.
Once was acceptable, twice was noteworthy, but it kept happening. Over the course of two hours, Brutus tied his laces five fucking times.
The big guy either had chronic motor dyslexia and hadn’t learned to tie his laces properly, which meant they kept coming undone, or he had another reason to fiddle with his sneakers.
Yeah. Another reason, right enough.
So fucking simple. When Barcode first sussed the shortfall, he’d credited Brutus with more brains. He expected the bastard to hand off the stolen money to an accomplice or an unwitting stooge. Maybe even hide it under a rock for a pickup in the middle of the night when even the hardest-bitten junkies crawled into their shitholes and the Tribe had shut up shop for the day. He didn’t expect something so stupidly blatant. How long did Brutus expect to get away with it for long?
So simple and so stupid. A fiver here and a fiver there, but over the course of a week, it would mount up. In the two months since Top Man gave Barcode the patch, the fucker must have syphoned off fucking hundreds.
A simple sleight of hand—or rather of foot. No accomplice. His fucking shoe! How stupid to have missed it for so long.
Barcode chewed his thumbnail down to the skin.
Disrespect. Brutus was dissing him. Laughing at him.
For Brutus to treat him that way showed more than greed. It showed contempt. Contempt for the Tribe and, worse still, contempt for Barcode.
Brutus had to go. End of.
Barcode crawled backwards along the roof and retraced his steps through the garden.
Barcode timed his approach so Lil’ Aran was heading towards the furthest point on his ride but before making his turn. The rider would be far enough away not to interfere if he was working the scam with Brutus, but close enough to act as witness and confirm Barcode didn’t plant the cash.
No point taking chances.
“Hey, my man,” Barcode called, smiling as he loped along the lane towards the pitch. “How’s it hangin’, blood?”
He waved with his left hand, keeping his right tucked tight against his side.
Brutus, as wide as he was tall, nineteen stones of pure beef—a bucket load of it between the ears—looked up as he approached. The thief’s eyebrows shot up.
His smile was as forced as any TV presenter Barcode had ever watched.
“Hey, blood. You’s early, man. Wasn’t expectin’ you for a couple hours, innit.”
Yeah, and that’s the point, dumbass.
Brutus ripped the beany from his head and used it to shoo away a mealy-mouthed, shit-for-brains regular who couldn’t pay the full fee. The yellow streetlight shone on Brutus’ polished dome.
Barcode stopped at arm’s length and pushed out his left fist—the sign things were cool. They bumped. All cool and friendly, like.
“Thought I’d come see how shit was hanging, blood. Apart from that dickwad”—he tilted his head towards the disappearing failed customer—“how’s trade?”
Brutus pulled the beanie back on and tucked his head into his shoulders. “Cold as fuck out here, man. I’m thinkin’ we should relocate the store. Maybe we could take over one of them houses and set up shop in the warm and the dry.”
Taking care not to show Brutus his back, Barcode turned sideways and observed the row of houses running at right angles to the alley, the closest of which ended in the garage he’d just been using. Above the fencing, the terrace stretched away and stopped when it reached the more expensive semi-detached homes closer to the High Street. Each house showed lights. All were occupied and, to some extent, well-maintained.
“Good idea, Brutus. Which house we gonna occupy? How ’bout number fifteen? You Auntie Grace ’habits there, right? We gonna set up in her front room? And what happens when the Po-Po comes a-calling? You’ll be holding, and the riders won’t have time to scoot. Nah, this shit’s what we do, and this station’s where we stayin’.”
Brutus lowered his head even more. He shuffled from one foot to the other, all nervous, like.
“Wazzap, man? You need the toilet?”
“Nah, freezing my ass off, innit.”
The runt, Barcode’s real-life cousin, Lil’ Aran, stopped out of earshot, balanced on his pedals, showing his bike handling skills. Looked at if he could tell something was off and didn’t want no part of it.
Good boy. Smart.
Any time now, Lil’ Aran might be due a promotion, despite his youth.
Barcode pointed to the rider. “Wh’appenin’ wi’ Lil’ Aran?”
As expected, Brutus turned to look.
Barcode stepped back a pace, grabbed the handle of the baseball bat and pulled it from the deep pocket his Auntie May had sewn into the lining of his parka. He swung a hard uppercut, stepping into the blow—adding his full bodyweight to increase the power of the swing.
The fat end of the bat landed between Brutus’ legs with enough force to take the rascal thief off his feet.
Brutus screamed, doubled over, and crumpled to his knees. Slowly, he toppled forward to land face first in a grimy puddle. Barcode smiled, delighted at the effect of the underhand blow, surprised he could generate enough power.
“Man, that’s gotta hurt bad,” he said, resting the end of the bat on the back of Brutus’ neck. The blow had knocked the beany clean off the thief’s head, and it floated on top of the puddle. “I can’t tell if you’ve pissed yourself, or if that damp patch in yo’ kecks is blood, blood. Ya feel me?”
Barcode flashed a glance up the alley. Lil’ Aran’s jaw dropped. He planted a foot on the ground to stop himself toppling.
To add to the desolation, rain started falling. Light at first, picking small holes in the puddle’s rippling surface, but increasing in force by the second. Before long, the downpour hammered down with the force of a power shower. Struggling to breathe, Brutus tried to pull his head out of the water, but Barcode planted a foot into the middle of Brutus’ back, forcing him down. Bubbles frothed around the drowning fucker’s head. His arms and legs started thrashing.
Barcode let him splash and buck for a count of twenty before releasing the pressure and stepping away.
Brutus pushed himself out of the water and rolled away, coughing and spluttering. Gagging. He scrambled away on his ass and fetched up against the rusted chain-link fence, where he curled into a tight ball, face creased, eyes closed.
“What the fuck you do that for, man?” he squeaked.
Barcode was impressed the fucker could speak at all after the blow. Must have had balls of steel. Mashed steel now, though. He couldn’t hold back a snicker. He signalled with the bat for Lil’ Aran to come as witness, but the rider didn’t budge. Couldn’t blame him none. Must have been scared shitless, thinking Barcode had lost it.
“Take off them sneakers, homes,” he ordered Brutus, speaking loud enough for Lil’ Aran to hear.
When the fucker didn’t move, Barcode ran the head of the bat along the fence above Brutus’ head. It made an aggressive rattle and meshed well with the splashing rain. He considered using the sound in his next mix. The rhythm would go well with his driving bass riff.
The crumpled man turned his head up and rain sluiced into his pained eyes. “What? What you say?”
“You hear me, blood. Kick off them sneakers ’fore I murk yo’ ass.”
Still twitching and shivering, the big man’s shoulders tensed in recognition. “You … you tripping, blood. Had too much product. You bust my balls and tell me to—”
Brutus screamed again as Barcode slammed the bat down on the top of his shoulder. The satisfying crunch of a shattering collar bone rattled up through the handle.
Barcode screamed, “Shut the fuck up, you mother!” and raised the bat high, holding it aloft but not completing the downswing. “Lil’ Aran, come here, cuz!”
The young rider shook his head. “No way, man. You tripping.”
Breathing hard, as much to steady his nerves as from the exercise, Barcode lowered the bat slowly and rested it on Brutus’ bad shoulder.
“Nah, little man. Things is cool. Come here, I needs you as a witness. You safe from me, less’n you’re part of it.”
“Part o’ what?”
Lil’ Aran sat up straighter in the saddle. Rain ran down his face and dripped off his chin like it was pouring out the spout of a teapot.
“I ain’t no t’ief!” he shouted above the whistling wind, the driving rain, and Brutus’s groaning and crying.
“So, do as I tell you. Come here and rip off this fucker’s sneakers!”
Lil’ Aran paused a moment, considering. He threw a glance at his escape route, then looked at Brutus before pushing down on the pedal. The bike edged forward, not gaining much speed.
“Hurry, man. I’s getting soaked.”
The rider pedalled harder, throwing up spray as the bike splashed through the growing pools of filthy water. Five metres away, he skidded to a sideways stop, jumped off the bike, and propped it against the fence. Then he approached the newly made cripple.
“Take off his sneakers.”
Brutus raised his head to stare at Lil’ Aran, “Don’t touch me you mother—”
A scream cut off Brutus’ cuss as Barcode pressed the bat into the shoulder.
“Who gave you permission to speak, fucker? Go on, Lil’ Aran. Let’s see what he’s hidin’ inside them flashy Pitch Blacks.”
Brutus tried to scrunch away but, crowded by Barcode on one side, Lil’ Aran on the other, and tight against the fence, he had nowhere to squirm to.
Lil’ Aran squatted in front of the fallen soldier and looked up at Barcode. “Okay if I takes out my cutter? I ain’t messing with wet knots.”
Barcode nodded. “Go for it, blood.”
The little rider pulled out a butterfly knife and flicked it open like he’d practised in his bedroom for hours. Must have been studying Alphonse, the smooth French Goon, but he didn’t get the action quite as slick.
Lil’ Aran sliced through laces and ripped the right sneaker from Brutus’ foot.
Using his fingertips, the rider fished inside the soft cuff. They came out with a bunch of crumpled banknotes. The rider gasped and shook his head.
“How much he got in there?”
Lil’ Aran smoothed out the paper and sorted them into tens and fives. He counted them slowly. “Thirty-five quid, innit.”
“Check the other shoe, little man.”
The rider repeated the process.
“Fifty-five. That’s … er,” he said, scrunching up his eyes to work the maths.
“Ninety, blood,” Barcode said, saving him the work. “He’s got ninety quid stuffed into them sneakers.”
Lil’ Aran stood, brushing water and gravel from the knees of his jeans. “Where’d he come up with that stash, BC?”
“Fucker been rippin’ off the Tribe, man. I been watchin’ him for the past couple hours.”
Brutus shook his head. “Na, man. You got it all wrong. I’s clean. That’s my stash. I puts it there for safe keeping. Honest.”
He released one fist from his crushed junk and held it up to Barcode, hand open, begging.
Barcode turned and started walking towards his car. Lil’ Aran followed, collected his bike, and walked alongside.
“You just leaving him there, Barcode?”
“What you want I to do?”
The rider shrugged. “Kill the fucker? He’ll run, no?”
“Nah, man. He ain’t running nowhere with bruised plums and a smashed shoulder.”
Barcode stopped walking and turned to face the pool of light. Somehow, Brutus had pulled himself to his feet. He leaned against the lamppost, hunched over, unable to stand straight. Barcode doubted the fucker would be able to stand straight for weeks.
“I ain’t killin’ no one. That’s TM’s decision, not mine.”
“You sure, BC?” Lil’ Aran asked, still looking up, blinking the rain out his eyes. “I’ll back yo’ action.”
“Thanks, Lil’ Aran, but I’s sure. Way I sees it, TM’s gonna send a little posse of Goons to Brutus’ crib. If he there, they’s gonna do the job for me. If he’s gone, no problemo. He turn up soon enough. My job’s to push the product and take care of business. Not my place to dish out punishment without orders. Me? I’s just a foot soldier.”
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