TW: Contains violence/ gore and bad language.
I pushed my food around the plate, not eating a single bite. Refusing to eat might well be a sign that something’s on your mind, but throwing up all over the dinner table is probably an even bigger one. Luckily, Dad isn’t what you might call an observant man. I managed to last a few minutes grunting non-committal replies to his questions. Then Mum entered the room, and everything fell apart.
‘Patrick dear, what’s wrong?’ she asked.
I froze, my fork poised over the latest meatball I’d been pretending to eat. Bile rose in my throat, and my skin turned to ice. Why is she always so damned observant? It had been this way since I was a kid. Once, I’d broken some ridiculously expensive vase of hers. When she asked if I’d done it, I did what any self-respecting ten-year-old would and denied everything. She’d seen through me in a heartbeat and grounded me for a month, not for breaking the vase but for trying to lie about it. Naturally, I thought this was the greatest injustice in history and decided to run away. Only, when I climbed out of my window and onto the roof, Mum was already there, sitting down and smoking a cigarette. I don’t know how she got there, but I never tried to lie to her again. I never even considered it. Not until that night at the dinner table.
I considered breaking the habit I’d kept for over fifteen years. I could have just denied everything, claimed I felt sick, and gone home. But I didn’t want to lie to them. That was why I came over for dinner, after all. There was no way out of our weekly tradition other than lying.
I couldn’t lie, not after everything they’d done for me. They’d raised me in this amazing villa, given me more toys than I could play with in a hundred childhoods, and most importantly of all, showered me in love and affection.
I took a deep breath. ‘I didn’t want to bother you with this… but I… I… owe some money.’
Dad sighed and took out his chequebook from his jacket pocket. ‘How much are we talking about?’
‘£250,000’, I said, not meeting his eyes.
Dad jumped to his feet. ‘£250,000!? What the hell kind of bank gave you a loan that big?’
I ignored him and glanced at Mum. She’d been silent, studying me like a hawk. I met her eyes, and it felt like she was inspecting my soul.
‘I don’t think he got the money from a bank, dear,’ she said.
Dad twisted his head to look at her. ‘He didn’t?’ He spun back to face me, brow furrowed. ‘You didn’t?’
I shook my head. ‘No.’
‘Then who on earth did you borrow it from? A friend?’
And here came the tricky bit. I really, really didn’t want to admit this part. But I’d run out of places to hide. ‘The Keys brothers,’ I said.
Dad’s mouth flopped open and waggled around uselessly. He looked so much like a goldfish that I almost laughed. Almost.
He paled. ‘The Keys brothers!? The same Keys brothers who broke Will Cutler’s fingers, one by one, in front of his four-year-old son? Who burned down the Faulkener’s cottage with them still inside?’
‘Why!? What possessed you to get involved with them?’
Before I could answer, Mum stepped in, shushing Dad and narrowing her eyes at me. ‘Did you do some work for them?’ she asked.
I frowned. ‘What? Definitely not!’
It stung a bit that she even had to ask that. I’d made a mistake, but I wasn’t a monster.
‘Then why do you owe them money?’ she asked.
I sighed. This was where it got embarrassing. ‘A friend, someone I thought was a friend, came to me with a business proposal. He wanted me to go in with him, 50-50. There was this new cryptocurrency company looking for a buyer. I should have known right then that it was a scam, but it sounded like a good deal, so-’
‘Why didn’t you just come to us?’ Dad exclaimed. ‘We’d have been happy to help you out with an investment.’
I shook my head. ‘I didn’t want to keep relying on the two of you. I wanted this success to be mine, and mine alone.’
Dad tilted his head back and let out a high-pitched, nasal laugh. ‘So you decided to borrow £250,000 from gangsters instead?’
‘I didn’t borrow £250,000. I only borrowed £100,000, but then I was late paying it back and-’
‘This wonderful business idea of yours failed then, did it?’ he said.
‘No. Not exactly. My part-’
Dad cocked his head. ‘What happened then? You just decided not to pay them back?’
I grit my teeth. ‘No. My part-’
‘Well then, why on earth haven’t you paid them?’
Mum laid a hand on his shoulder. ‘If you’d let him finish speaking, Harold, then perhaps we’ll find out.’
With Dad suitably cowed, I finally explained.
‘My partner, my so-called friend, cheated me. He took the money and ran.’
‘Leaving you with a mob of angry gangsters after their money,’ Dad finished for me. He shivered. ‘How much do they know about you? Do they know where you live? Do they know where we live? What if they-’
‘Relax, Harold,’ Mum said. ‘I’ll take care of it.’
I snapped my head up to look at her. ‘You will? You have enough money?’
‘Of course, dear. Let me just get a few things from my safe.’
Mum waltzed away, heading to wherever she kept her hidden safe. Not even Dad or I knew where it was.
Meanwhile, Dad paced around the room like a flustered chicken. He even had the bobbing neck to complete the look. It’s a good job that our kitchen, living area, and dining space were all in one big open-plan room. Else he’d have been bouncing off the walls like a pinball. I’d have been splitting my sides with laughter if the situation wasn’t so serious.
Watching him, I was reminded once again how glad I was that I got my appearance more from Mum’s side of the family. While Dad was short, balding, and skinny, I was tall and lithe like Mum.
I sat for a while, listening to him spouting a constant stream of panicked chatter. ‘Oh my, what are we going to do? What if they find us? What if they decide to increase the debt again?’
Eventually, I got tired of this. ‘Dad, Mum said she’d take care of it. Stop worrying. It’ll be fine.’ Call me a mama’s boy if you want, but I’d learned long ago that when Mum said she’d deal with something, it got dealt with. As far as I was concerned, the Keys brothers were now nothing more than an unpleasant memory.
Oh, how wrong I was.
No sooner had the words left my mouth than a beam of light sliced across our garden as a car pulled into the drive.
‘Are we expecting any guests?’ I asked.
Dad finally stopped pacing. He stood next to me, frozen like a statue. ‘No,’ he whispered.
‘Shit.’ I ran a hand through my hair. ‘Okay. All right. I’ll go outside and meet them. It’s me they want, after all.’
I got up and stepped towards the door, but Dad grasped my arm. ‘You can’t! They’ll kill you.’
‘They won’t kill me. How’ll they get their money then?’
He stared at me with saucer-like eyes. ‘You mean you haven’t heard what they did to the last person who owed them money? It was all over the papers.’
I frowned. ‘No.’
‘They stripped the poor man’s organs to sell on the black market.’
I shivered. Still, I had to do something. I couldn’t drag my parents into this any more than I already had. I shrugged off Dad’s hand and stepped once more towards the door. But it was too late. The door came crashing off its hinges, and a hulking figure stepped through the empty frame.
Terry Keys. He wasn’t the brother I’d made a deal with. He never lent money. He was the one who came to collect.
He leered at me, revealing a mouth crowded full of yellowed teeth. ‘Patrick Thorne. We’ve been looking for you.’
Behind Terry trailed three men who looked like Neanderthals straight from the pages of a history book. Terry flicked his wrist down the hall. ‘Billy, check the house for anyone else. We don’t want any interruptions while we work, do we?’
I strode forwards, hoping to stop Billy before he could head off into the house and find Mum, but he barged me aside, knocking me to the floor.
I scrambled to my feet. ‘Terry, wait. There’s no need for any of this. Let me talk to Jacob. We can sort something out.’
He shook his head. ‘Nah. Your time dealing with my brother is done, mate. You get me now.’
Then Dad, poor, cowardly little Dad, puffed out his chest and raised himself to his full height.
‘You are not welcome in this house. I demand that you leave at once,’ he said.
Terry howled with laughter. ‘Oh, you demand it, do you? You hear that, lads? He demands it. Well, that settles it. We best be off. Come along then, let’s go home.’ He called out down the corridor. ‘Billy, come back. Mr Thorne here says we aren’t welcome.’
Terry spun about and strolled towards the front door. Then he stopped. He turned. He looked Dad dead in the eyes. ‘There’s just one problem Mr Thorne.’ Terry took a few quick strides towards Dad and punched him in the face with a paw-like hand. ‘I don’t give a shit what you want.’
As Dad fell to the ground and curled into a ball, Terry kicked him again and again, his face growing redder every second.
‘Who the hell do you think you are? Telling me what to do. I’ll teach you a goddamn lesson.’
I lunged forwards, but one of Terry’s goons seized my arms.
‘Now, now, let’s not disturb the boss,’ he whispered into my ear, his rancid breath crawling over my face. ‘Remember, this is all happening because you didn’t pay what you owe. Now the boss has come to collect.’
Terry’s other henchman, an older man with grey hair, inched forwards.
‘Boss, hold up,’ he said. ‘Maybe we could find a more productive way to teach him a lesson, eh?’
Terry paused his assault. Panting, he looked at the grey-haired man. ‘What did you have in mind?’
‘I was thinking, two sets of organs are better than one, right? Why not take the father too?’
Terry grinned. ‘I like the way you think, Arthur. Alright, bind them.’
Arthur produced a reel of nylon rope and tied Dad’s hands together, while the younger henchman, who I learned was called Clive, did the same to me. All the while, Terry leered at us and licked his lips.
When the goons finished, he nodded in satisfaction. ‘Good. Now let’s get Billy and get the hell out of here. Where is that lazy git?’
‘Billy’s not coming, dear,’ called a soft, feminine voice. I snapped my head around and sure enough, there was Mum, staring at Terry. My jaw dropped. She’d always been confident, never willing to lose an argument, but this… this was another level. Has she completely lost her mind?
Evidently, Terry thought much the same. ‘Who the hell are you?’ he asked.
Mum smiled at him. ‘I’m the lady of this house. I would ask you to please unhand my husband and son.’
‘Oh, you would, would you? What is it with this bloody family and not getting how this works? Listen, your husband and son are coming with me. In fact, I think we’ll take you too.’ He nodded to Clive. ‘Get her.’
Mum’s smile grew wider. ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Not unless you want to end up like Billy.’ As she spoke, she produced a stiletto blade from behind her back. A wet, red substance covered it. Blood.
Clive jerked to a halt.
‘What did you do to Billy?’ Terry growled at her.
‘I’m afraid Billy won’t be joining us, dear.’
What the hell is going on? I thought. Where did she get that knife? Where did she learn how to use it? What did she do to Billy?
Terry didn’t seem to care too much about any of those questions. He only wanted one thing. Revenge.
He glared at her, eyes blazing with fury. ‘Clive, teach her a lesson.’
‘Wait! Boss, I recognise her.’ Arthur called out. I craned my neck to look at him. He seemed paler than before, and his hands appeared to be shaking.
‘You do?’ Terry asked.
Arthur nodded. ‘She used to work with your father back in the old days.’
Terry raised an eyebrow. ‘This weak old woman used to work for my father?’
‘With your father, dear, not for him,’ Mum added, still grinning from ear to ear. ‘And less of the old if you don’t mind, I’m not even fifty-five.
Terry scoffed. ‘Alright, I’ll play. What did this charming young woman do for father?’
Arthur hesitated. ‘Honestly… she used to do your job. Except she was freelance. All the big crime bosses hired her when they had a problem that needed dealing with. They called her the She-Devil.’
‘The She-Devil? What’s she supposed to be, some kind of knock-off Avenger?’
‘Not really.’ Arthur shook his head. ‘Not unless I missed the movie where Black Widow cut off a man’s nose and fed it to his dog.’
I was still too stunned to speak. Dad, however, had regained the use of his tongue. ‘Margaret, is this true?’ he asked.
‘Of course, dear.’ She gestured around the room with her blade. ‘Didn’t you ever wonder how I paid for all this?’
‘I thought that your father…’
‘My father was a terrible businessman, Harold, but he was a useful money launderer.’ She turned her attention back to Terry. ‘Now that we’ve established who I am and why it would be a terrible idea to cross me, why don’t you run along home and forget all about my son’s debt?’
Terry frowned. ‘How do I know that any of this is true?’
‘Your friend just told you,’ Mum said.
‘Arthur’s a senile old man. I want real proof.’
Mum shrugged. ‘Ring your mother and ask her about me, then. Tell her that Maggie sends her regards.’
Then Mum made a mistake. At least, I hope it was a mistake. I’m not so sure. There was a strange look in her eyes. A sort of hunger.
She looked Terry dead in the eye. ‘Unless, Terrence dear, you’ve finally reached the age where you don’t need mummy to hold your hand for you?’
Apparently, Terry didn’t like being called a mama’s boy. His face turned the deep, dark red of a glass of merlot. I honestly thought his head might explode. In a way, I suppose it did.
He let out a roar of anger. ‘Clive. Take. Her. Down.’
This time, Clive did as he was told, though not without caution. He edged towards Mum, eyeing her warily, but she made no move against him. That is, until he reached out a hand to grasp her arm. Then she moved as I’d never seen her, or indeed, anyone else, move before.
She danced to the side and flicked out with the stiletto blade. Clive screamed. Two of his fingers fell to the floor. He looked down at his severed appendages, then back at Mum. He charged.
Again, she dodged him easily, this time slicing the blade across his hamstring. Clive fell to his knees, and Mum strolled up behind him.
‘I did warn you not to try it, dear. Now I’m going to have to make an example of you.’
She plunged the dagger into his heart.
Terry and Arthur stood frozen in shock, their jaws hanging open. I felt like I was going to throw up. Dad did throw up. Mum just smiled at Terry.
‘Don’t you think you better make that phone call now, dear?’
Terry made the phone call.
A couple of minutes later, he apologised to Mum, forgave my debt and left. He even dragged Clive and Billy’s bodies out to their car while Arthur cleaned up the blood.
After they’d gone, Mum made Dad and I sit on the couch while she brewed a pot of tea.
I stared into space. I’d just watched my mother, the woman who had birthed me, bathed me, clothed me and fed me, kill a man. She’d done it to save our lives, mine and Dad’s. But still, I wasn’t sure I could ever look at her the same way again. My eyes locked with Dad’s, and I knew he felt the same way.
Mum, pouring tea into a trio of little china teacups, must have noticed, but she gave no sign. Instead, she placed a gentle hand on my shoulder and smiled at me.
‘Now, dear. Tell me all about this business partner of yours.’