After Unlucky Dip (Excerpt).

The Pan of Hamgee strolled through the city, whistling nonchalantly. Actually, it wasn’t exactly the city he strolled through so much as the roofs above. As a blacklisted person his very existence was treason, so unless he had suicidal tendencies he had to be highly vigilant walking many of the streets in daytime. He could do it, of course, and often did, but it was always best to stick to the larger, crowded thoroughfares where he could be lost in a throng of others, and it took so much concentration, even now, when it was winter and dark early The Pan needed to stay on his guard. Which was why when he couldn’t be arsed, or at least when he could be less arsed, because he was always on his guard a bit, he tended to walk above the streets, along the roofs, rather than actually down them. Police patrols were thin on the ground up here and while he was visible from above, most of the airborne patrols were in transit, hurrying from one place to another or concentrating on some unlucky individual on the street below who was less used to being followed.

There were footpads up here of course, but as a fellow member of the criminal fraternity The Pan knew they were creatures of habit. None of them would be out until after seven and anyway, they were fellow K’Barthans. Somehow he had fewer misgivings about being murdered by a member of his own nation. So it was OK. Probably.

The Pan stopped to admire the twinkling lights of the city. It was bitingly cold but the air was fresh and clear. He breathed in deeply and exhaled a satisfyingly large cloud of steam. It felt good. He supposed it helped that he’d had a bath, visited a laundrette and eaten a ‘chicken’ quaarl from Squeaky Joe’s van. In times of hardship, The Pan considered paying for food far too much of a luxury when it could be stolen fresh from the market every morning. He hadn’t been able to afford to treat himself for several months and the clear sinuses and pleasant chilli buzz he was experiencing were exacerbated by the cold evening air. He smiled and blew out another cloud of steamy breath, trying to make ‘smoke’ rings.

It didn’t work but The Pan didn’t care. It was so long since he’d eaten a Squeaky Joe that it was like getting reacquainted with an old friend.

The Pan checked his watch, he was ahead of schedule and for a moment he toyed with the idea of returning to the van for another portion. Squeaky Joe always teased The Pan about the relish with which he ate.

‘You’d eat shoe leather you would!’ he would say and The Pan would counter,

‘Why not? If it’s cured correctly and the spices are right.’

Then Squeaky Joe would give him a second tub, half price.

The Pan once asked Squeaky Joe where his nickname came from.

‘Squeaky clean of course!’ He’d pointed to the certificate on his van wall confirming a sky high hygiene rating. Very possibly he’d invited The Pan to notice how spotlessly clean his van was, and how meticulously careful he was to adhere to all the cardinal rules of safe food preparation, in order to allay any fears about what he was preparing. Because there was another rumour that the van was spotlessly, suspiciously, clean because most of the meat Squeaky used was … well, put it like this, if Squeaky Joe’s hot quaarl was really made with chicken he’d probably have been called Clucky Joe. But nobody ever got food poisoning, or died and since The Pan came from Hamgee he had few qualms about eating anything that was prepared with as much meticulous care, and attention to hygiene as Squeaky Joe’s hot rat quaarl. That said, after ten days without food, The Pan felt his decision not to have second helpings was probably a good thing. It was rather hot on an empty stomach and it was lying a little heavy.

Or maybe it was the prospect of this evening’s meeting that was making The Pan’s stomach churn.

Yep. Best not think about that.

He took a running jump across an alley, burping as he hit the surface of the roof the other side, which somewhat ruined the effect of a neat landing.

‘Pardon!’ he said to no-one in particular.

He stopped.

‘Am I really going to do this?’

When The Pan was stuck or needed to talk things through with someone, he would imagine his parents in his head, before it all went wrong, when he still got along with them. He called this, virtual parenting.

You’re on your way to the pub aren’t you? said the imaginary voice of his father.

‘Not necessarily, I could blow them out.’

Blow out Big Merv? Himself? Hardly wise is it? He’ll have you killed.

‘Mmm there is that.’

And you’ve taken his money.

The Pan’s heart sank, oh hadn’t he just? Not that much money but … yeh. More than he could ever hope to earn and pay back.

‘Very, very good point.’

That’s how they get you, of course.

‘Yes, I am aware.’

The Pan’s gaze strayed to the cluster of bright lights in the distance that marked the position of the current phase of construction work on the Outer Ring. He didn’t want to be part of a motorway stanchion, not yet, although he was aware that it might be preferable to anything the Security forces would do to him if he was caught.

So you’re going to join a gang.

‘No, I’m going to run errands for Big Merv.’

Exactly, you’re working for a gang lord.

‘For now,’ said The Pan with a sigh.

Which makes you a gang member.

‘No, it makes me an employee.’

He turned his back on the view and carried on his way. There were advantages to being part of Big Merv’s organisation, he tried to tell himself as he walked. After all, he might, possibly, have just scored himself a steady income and since he was on the Blacklist, and paying him a wage was illegal, this was probably about as close as he’d ever get to holding down a job. Sure he’d been recruited to work for a gang lord and yes, that was a Bad Thing. His parents, if they were still around, would definitely NOT approve. But on the other hand he was only running errands. Small fry. He wasn’t hurting anyone.

Yet. Running errands my foot. That’s how it always starts, the imaginary voice of his father told him.

‘Maybe,’ he conceded, ‘but it’s not as if I’m killing anyone.’

No, just carrying the orders to kill them.

‘Hopefully not. And let’s face it. It’s not as if I can do much else is it? In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a GBI. The only people who are going to give me a job are people who are a bit … you know,’ The Pan shrugged, ‘louche about obeying the law.’

And Arnold, The Prophet knew it beat starving.

Or becoming one with the Outer Ring.

He thought about how incredible it had felt to be able to afford a portion of Squeaky Joe’s hot rat quaarl.

‘Yep, definitely.’