Stuart Neville: Followers
Short story from top crime fiction writer
Stuart Neville's debut novel The Twelve has been described by the Observer as 'a future classic'. Below is 'Followers', the short story that inspired the novel, taken from Neville's collection, The Six, which is available free to download from www.stuartneville.com/the-six. 'This is the short story that inspired my novel, published in the UK as The Twelve by Harvill Secker,' said Neville. 'It's a little rough around the edges, but I hope it might shed some light on how the germ of an idea can blossom into something much bigger.
Maybe if he had one more drink they'd leave him alone. Gerry Fegan told himself that lie before every swallow. He chased the whiskey's burn with a cool, black mouthful of Guinness and placed the glass back on the table. Look up and they'll be gone, he thought.
No. They were still there, still staring. Twelve of them if he counted the baby. Even its small, blue eyes were fixed on him.
He was good and drunk, now. Tom the barman would see him to the door soon, and the twelve would follow Fegan through the streets of Belfast, into his house, up his stairs, and into his bedroom. If he was lucky, and drunk enough, he might pass out before their screaming got too loud to bear.
That was the only time they made a sound: when he was alone and on the edge of sleep. When the baby started crying, that was the worst of it. He feared that less than the gun under his bed, but not by much.
One day that balance might shift. One day he might taste the gun's cold, hard snout before a fiery sun bloomed in his skull. Maybe tonight. Maybe not. The whiskey would decide.
Fegan raised the empty glass to get Tom's attention.
'Haven't you had enough, Gerry?' asked Tom. 'Is it not home time yet? Everyone's gone.'
'One more,' said Fegan, trying not to slur. He knew Tom would not refuse. Fegan was still a respected man in West Belfast, despite the drink.
Sure enough, Tom sighed and raised a glass to the optic. He brought the whiskey over and counted change from the table.
Fegan held the glass up and made a toast to his twelve companions. One of the five soldiers among them smiled and nodded in return. The rest just stared.
'Fuck you,' said Fegan. 'Fuck the lot of you.'
None of the twelve reacted, but Tom looked back over his shoulder. He shook his head and continued walking to the bar. Fegan looked at each of his companions in turn. Of the five soldiers three were Brits and two were Ulster Defence Regiment. Another of the followers was a cop, his Royal Ulster Constabulary uniform neat and stiff, and two more were loyalists, both Ulster Freedom Fighters. The remaining four were civilians who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He remembered doing all of them, but he'd met only three face-to-face.
The woman and her baby in the doorway to the butcher's shop where he'd left the package. He'd held the door for her as she wheeled the pram in. They'd smiled at each other. He'd felt the heat of the blast as he jumped into the already moving car.
The other was the boy. Fegan could still remember the look in his eyes when he saw the pistol. Now the boy sat across the table from him, those same eyes boring into him as they had done for nearly seven years. When Fegan saw the tears pooling on the tabletop he brought his fingers to the hollows of his face and realised he'd been weeping.
'Jesus,' he said.
A hand on his shoulder startled him, and he cried out.
'Time you were going, Gerry,' said Michael McGinty. Tom must have called him. He was smartly dressed in a jacket and trousers, a far cry from the teenager Fegan had known thirty years ago. Wealth looked good on him.
'I'm just finishing,' said Fegan.
'Well, drink up and I'll run you home.' McGinty smiled down at him, his teeth white and even. He'd had them fixed before winning his seat at Westminster two elections ago. He'd never taken the seat; that was against party policy. He did take his seat at Stormont, though, and his place on Northern Ireland's Executive. That had also been against party policy at one time. But times change, even if people don't.
The boy was behind McGinty now, and Fegan watched as he made a gun with his fingers and pointed at the politician's head. He mimed firing it, his hand thrown upwards by the recoil. His mouth made a plosive movement, but no sound came.
'Do you remember that kid, Michael?' asked Fegan.
'Don't, Gerry.' McGinty's voice carried a warning.
'He hadn't done anything. Not really. He didn't tell the cops anything they didn't know already. He didn't deserve that. Jesus, he was fifteen.'
One hard hand gripped Fegan's face, the other his thinning hair, and the animal inside McGinty showed itself. 'Shut your fucking mouth," he hissed. "Remember who you're talking to.'
Fegan remembered only too well. As he looked into those fierce eyes he remembered every detail. This was the face he knew, not the one on television, but the face that twisted in white-hot pleasure as McGinty set about the boy with a claw hammer, the face that was dotted with red when he handed
Fegan the .22 pistol to finish it.
The smile returned to McGinty's mouth as he released his grip, but not to his eyes. 'Come on,' he said. 'My car's outside. I'll run you home.'
The twelve followed them out to the street, the boy staying close to McGinty. The Mercedes gleamed in the orange streetlights. It was empty and no other cars were parked nearby. McGinty had come out with no escort to guard him. Fegan knew the Merc was armoured, bullet- and bomb-proof, and McGinty probably felt safe as he unlocked it, unaware of the followers.
They spent the journey in silence. McGinty never spoke as he drove, knowing his car was almost certainly bugged by the Brits. Fegan closed his eyes and savoured the few minutes away from the followers, knowing they'd be waiting at his house.
He remembered the first time he saw them. It was in the Maze prison and he'd just been given his release date. They were there when he looked up from the letter.
He told one of the prison psychologists about it. Dr Brady said it was guilt (a manifestation, he called it) and he should try apologising to them. Out loud. Then they might go away. Later that day, when it was just him and them in his cell, Fegan tried it. He decided to start with the woman and her baby. He picked his words carefully before he spoke. He inhaled, ready to tell her face-to-face how sorry he was. Even now, years later, he could still feel the burning sting of her palm on his cheek, the one time any of them touched him.
McGinty pulled the Mercedes into the kerb outside Fegan's small terraced house. The followers stood on the pavement, waiting.
'Can I come in for a second?' McGinty's smile sparkled in the car's interior lighting. 'Just for a quick chat.'
Fegan shrugged and climbed out.
The twelve parted to let him approach his door. He unlocked it and went inside, McGinty following, the twelve slipping in between. Fegan headed straight for the sideboard where a bottle of Jameson's and a jug of water waited for him.
He showed McGinty the bottle.
'No thanks,' said McGinty. 'Maybe you shouldn't, either.'
Fegan ignored him, pouring two fingers of whiskey into a glass and the same of water. He took a deep swallow, then pointed to a chair.
'No, I'm all right,' said McGinty.
The twelve milled around the room, studying each man intently. The boy lingered by McGinty's side.
'What'd you want to chat about?' Fegan lowered himself into a chair.
McGinty pointed to the drink in Fegan's hand. 'About that. It's got to stop, Gerry.'
Fegan held the politician's eyes as he drained the glass.
'People round here look up to you. You're a republican hero. The young fellas need a role model, someone they can respect.'
'Respect? What are you talking about?' Fegan put the glass on the coffee table and held his hands up. 'I can't get the blood off. I never will, no matter how much I scrub them. There's no respecting what I did.'
McGinty's face flushed with anger. 'You did your time. You were a political prisoner for twelve years. A dozen years of your life given up for the cause. Any republican should respect that.' His expression softened. 'But you're pissing it away, Gerry. People are starting to notice. Every night you're at the bar, drunk off your face, talking to yourself.'
'I'm not talking to myself.' Fegan pointed to the followers. 'I'm talking to them.'
'Who?' McGinty made a show of casting his eyes around the room.
'The ones I killed. The ones we killed.'
'Watch your mouth, Gerry. I never killed anybody.'
No, you were always too smart to do it yourself. You used mugs like me instead.' Fegan stood up. 'I need a piss.'
'Don't be long,' said McGinty.
Fegan made his way up the stairs and into the bathroom. He closed and bolted the door, but as always, the followers found their way in. Except the boy. Fegan paid it little mind, instead concentrating on keeping upright while he emptied his bladder.
He had long since gotten used to the twelve witnessing his most undignified moments. He flushed, rinsed his hands under the tap, and opened the door. The boy was there, on the landing, Fegan's gun in his hand. He had taken the Walther P99 from under the bed and brought it out here. Fegan knew it was loaded.
The boy held it out to him, grip first. Fegan didn't understand. He shook his head. The boy stepped closer, lifted Fegan's right hand, and placed the pistol in it. He mimed the act of pulling back the slide assembly to chamber the first round.
Fegan looked from the boy to the pistol and back again. The boy nodded. Fegan drew back the slide, released it, hearing the snick-snick of oiled parts moving together.
The boy smiled and descended the stairs. He stopped, looked back over his shoulder, and indicated that Fegan should follow.
Feeling an adrenal rush that stirred dark memories, his legs shaking, Fegan began the slow climb downward. The others came behind, sharing glances with one another. As he reached the bottom, he saw McGinty's back. The politician was leafing through the pile of unopened bills and letters on the sideboard.
The boy crossed the room and again made the shape of a pistol with his fingers, again mimed the execution of the man who had taken him apart with a claw hammer almost twenty years ago.
Fegan's breath was ragged, his heartbeat thunderous. Surely McGinty would hear. The boy looked to him and smiled.
Fegan asked, 'If I do it, will you leave me alone?'
The boy nodded.
'What?' McGinty turned to the voice and froze when he saw the gun aimed at his forehead.
'I promised myself I'd never do this again,' said Fegan, his vision blurred by tears. 'But I have to.'
'Jesus, Gerry.' McGinty gave a short, nervous laugh as he held his hands up. 'What're you at?'
'I'm sorry, Michael. I have to.'
McGinty's smile fell away. 'Christ, think about what you're doing, Gerry. The boys won't let it go, ceasefire or not. They'll come after you.'
'Thirty years, Gerry. We've known each other thirty—'
The Walther barked once, throwing red and grey against the wall. McGinty fell back against the sideboard, then slid to the floor. Fegan walked over and put one in his heart, just to be sure.
He wiped the tears from his eyes and looked around the room. The followers jostled for position, looking from Fegan to the body, from the body to Fegan.
The boy wasn't among them.
Eleven to go.