A few paces on and he stopped at the entrance where he had seen the skinny youth enter and emerge. The sign was in full view, Skippers Ope. One skipper or many, he mused; something only a relentless pedant would worry about.
Daylight was fading. The ope was an unlit passage between neighbouring terraced houses, roofed by where the upper level walls met. Bromo looked around. No one to be seen. Curiosity got the better of him and he stepped gingerly into the ope, towards a faint glow several yards further on. The ground was gravel, the walls scuffed and cracked, paintwork old and peeling. Where the houses ended, chicken wire fencing on either side defined the boundaries of scruffy back gardens before the path bent to the left where it skirted a massive spread of blackberry bushes surrounding about a dozen spindly trees that had long given up the fight for survival.
A large stone building loomed in the misty background. A house, a mini mansion even, perhaps a factory of some sort? Bromo considered all possibilities. It mostly rose three floors above ground but attic rooms added to its height. And he imagined there were cellars below. A hefty and high solid wooden door provided the only obvious entrance; barred windows on either side suggesting several rooms occupied the ground floor. Or maybe it was one large open space. A matching pattern of windows filled the first and second floors. Not strictly windows, though, as where there should have been glass there were now wooden panels. Or gaping holes.
It looked empty, unloved and unused; a once stately home long neglected. An ideal set for making an eighteenth-century Gothic horror movie. Yet this was where the skinny youth had presumably come. The only path, where Bromo still stood, led to that massive front door. He could see no other track ahead of him.
He felt rain trickling on to his forehead from his coat’s protective hood. Shook it away and decided to turn back, the warmth of the pub a far better option.
The voice came at him from a mere few feet away, the same source as the beam of a high-powered light striking his face full on. Glaring, blinding. Bromo blinked, turned his head, focussing down to ground level. All he could see were two thick-soled work boots. Large size. Above them the lower levels of a pair of oilskin trousers, gathered in at the ankles. He shifted his gaze to one side. The same view, big boots, oilskins. Prepared for outdoors and all weathers.
Bromo decided to say nothing. Wait. This was not a welcoming committee and it stood firm between him and his only way back to the main drag. Only two words had been spoken yet they were rife with aggression. He had no idea who was behind them. Friend or foe? All his money was on the latter. To make a dash for it was out of the question. The only option was to wait for the torchbearer to break the silence. He shuffled his feet, cold and starting to cramp.
‘Wouldn’t dream of it.’
‘Ha-ha,’ a brief chuckle, ‘a funny man eh? What you think, Charlie?’
‘We’ve got ourselves a comedian.’
A new voice, not so deep but with the same accent as the first. Eastern European, decided Bromo. A spasm of fear hit him, thoughts of past brutal encounters with the Bulgarian underworld shot through him. He breathed deep, forcing calm.
‘But we’re not laughing, are we?’ said the first voice.
‘I’m new in town, a tourist, I got lost,’ said Bromo, letting words tumble out, quietly pleading, a lame excuse, meek and trying to explain.
The response was sudden and vicious. A shout, ‘You lie.’
Bromo saw the harsh beam of light shift down and forward. The flat round head of the torch was plunged hard into his gut. And again. And again. He doubled over, clutching at his midriff. Winded and pained, the ground coming up to meet him as the side of a gloved hand chopped into the back of his neck. Only once, but it was enough to send him sprawling, pushing one hand out to break his fall as he tried to roll sideways to prevent his face smashing full on into the gravel.
He heard footsteps close by. He sensed his assailants were standing over him, checking the results of their work. A boot prodded his ribs, almost gently compared with the recent blows.
‘I don’t know who you are, my friend, or if someone sent you,’ said the one who seemed to be the leader. ‘But no tourists welcome here.’ His boot dug harder into Bromo’s ribs. ‘Private property,’ he announced. Another dig for emphasis. ‘You can find your own way out.’ One more kick, the hardest of them all.
Bromo choked back a groan, wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of knowing the pain he felt. He heard their boots scrape the gravel path, footsteps moving in the direction of the grim-looking building. The sound fading. He allowed himself a couple of minutes to draw breath and ease aching muscles, flexing, rolling neck and shoulders, before slowly unwinding to an upright position and stumbling towards the darkness of Skippers Ope and the warmth of the Oak and Apple.