When Mike Bray is grabbed off the street on his way home on an ordinary Friday night, his world is turned inside out.Forced by the head of a South London crime gang to impersonate low-level criminal Tommy Boronovski, Mike quickly learns how to lie and side-step in order to keep his family safe.Somehow he must find a way of protecting his family from threats of violence, and maintain his own ethics and morals as he treads a seemingly impossible path.Soon the borders between himself and Tommy become blurred, leaving him questioning the true meaning of identity, and hostage to his own temptations.Find out what happens in this gripping story of survival and self-discovery.
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Being Tommy Boronovski
I'd stopped at the bar for one beer on my way home, but then bumped into Dave Colman, and one drink turned into three.
I knocked back the last of my beer, and said, 'I'm running late, Dave. I've got to hit the road.'
He raised a hand in farewell, 'Say hi to Catherine and the girls for me.'
I said I would – but I never did.
It was seven o'clock on a Friday night, and I should have been home with my wife and twin girls. Saturday morning Catherine would take Sarah to under fifteen's hockey, and I'd take Sophia to tennis. We had that same routine every weekend during hockey season. After sports we'd meet for lunch at the girls chosen fast-food place – generally Burger King. It was the one time each week we'd allow them eat junk food. They called me mean, Catherine called me honey, and at work I was known as Midnight Mike.
I pulled my collar up to ward off the biting cold of the October night. The Norfolk wind is said to be lazy, going through you rather than around you, and that night was no exception.
My work van was off the road with a blown engine, an added expense I could have done without. The hire van I was using was parked two hundred yards further along the cold, wet street.
I walked fast, head down, feeling the effect of the beers. The van lights flashed when I pressed the remote, then something crunched against my head, red turned to black, and the pavement rushed up at my face.
There were muffled voices, muffled to me in my semi-conscious state. Rough hands dragged me out of the van and I fell to the floor. I blacked out again.
As my senses returned I could hear the sound of leather soled boots scuffing on concrete.
For a brief moment I thought it must be a prank, that I was in my workshop, and the work boots I could hear belonged to one of my workmates. But the smells were wrong. There was no smell of cut and welded steel, no smell of grinding dust. All I could sense was decay, like the dampness of a cellar that had been closed for years.
My hands had been bound behind my back, my ankles tied together, and what felt like duct tape wrapped tight across my eyes. Nobody had spoken. Not a single word.
Strong hands grabbed me by the jacket and shoved me against a wall. They passed a rope across my chest and under my arms, then pulled it tight somewhere above my head, trussing me up like an animal ready for slaughter.
The fear overcame my stoicism. I couldn’t hold out any longer. 'What do you want from me?'
There was no reply.
The rope cut into my shoulder muscles, so I tried to stand on my toes to ease the pressure. Leather scraped concrete and the rope was tightened further.
After what felt like an hour of being trussed up that way, I sensed somebody close to my left side.
'Who is it?' he said quietly, his voice calm and reasonable as if asking the time.
'Who's what? I've got no idea who you are or what you're talking about.'
'Tisk tisk tisk. Wrong answer, Tommy.'
'Wait.' My voice was abnormally high. I tried to swallow to wet my throat. 'My name's Mike, not Tommy. I'm not—'
My words were cut off by a huge punch to the side of the head. More tape was wrapped tight across my eyes and then around my mouth.
The man with the calm voice said, 'We'll try again in a while, shall we?'
I couldn't move, see, or speak. Confusion started to give way to panic. Who was Tommy? And who were these men who thought I was him?
The punch had dulled me, my head wracked with pain. My nose was partly blocked, and hauling in air made more difficult by the upward pull of the rope.
Time passed slowly. The only comfort was thinking that if they believed I was a man called Tommy, they wouldn’t be going after my family, Mike Bray's family. That thought was all I had to hang on to.
Considerable time had passed, and I'd lapsed in and out of consciousness, then I heard the familiar footsteps stop in front of me. My breathing quickened as I waited to be hit again. I flinched as something cold touched my face, pushed up beneath the tape bound across my eyes, then it twisted and cut.
It stung like hell when they ripped the tape away. I blinked a few times to clear my vision, then tried to focus on the short, balding man standing in front of me.
His head was tipped on one side, his pudgy face wearing an amused smile. 'Hello, Tommy.'
I closed my eyes hoping it would all go away and I'd wake beside my wife recalling fragments of a fading nightmare. I opened my eyes and he was still there, still smiling. The tape across my mouth made my attempt to reply impossible. I tried again to shake my head and say, 'I'm not Tommy', but only managed to chafe harder on the rope and blow blood and snot from my nose.
'You're a real disappointment to me. You know that?'
The man speaking was short and overweight, well dressed and self-confident. The two standing behind him were big, fit, and dressed to fight. They both stared me down, the bigger of the two showing me his balled fist, and I guessed he was the one who'd hit me.
'All this time I've trusted you, made you rich, kept you safe, and what do you do? You shit on me, that's what.'
He gave one brief nod and the balled fist slammed into the bottom of my ribcage. I gasped, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get enough air through my nose, started to black out again.
The knife slid inside the tape and cut. Somebody tore it away, taking skin from my lower lip with it. I gulped air, spat blood.
'Was there something you wanted to say?' the short man asked.
'I'm not Tommy.' I gulped more air. 'My name's not Tommy.'
He turned and spoke to the muscle. 'Does this look like Tommy?'
'Looks like Tommy to me, Boss.'
'Does he sound like Tommy?'
'Sounds like him, Boss.'
'I'm not him.' Even to my ears I sounded frightened, pathetic. I was past caring.
'You know what they say around here, don't you? If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck then it's a fucking duck. And you, you deceitful lying piece of shit are not talking your way out of this.'
His accent sounded London, or Essex.
'Get me a chair,' he said to no-one in particular. Within seconds a third man came in carrying a hardback chair and placed it behind him.
I wondered how many more there were, what my fate would be, how much it would hurt. Fear crept over me like the cold river water we'd swim in as teenagers, when life seemed easy and endless. Who was Tommy? Whoever he was, there must be a strong resemblance between us. I even sounded like him according to the fat man they called Boss.
My thoughts turned to Catherine and the twins. How would me being kidnapped, tortured, and killed affect them? The girls were studying for their GCSEs. Dad being killed would throw that into a loop. Sarah was set on science, she saw a future of wearing a white lab-coat and conducting experiments. Both the science teacher and school principal said she's gifted in that area. Sophia was the artistic one, and loved reading and drawing. Funny how they look so alike, but are such different characters. Just like me and Tommy from the sounds of it. Except Tommy wasn’t my twin.
What if they dump my body and it's never found? Will the girls believe I abandoned them? Will Catherine think I ran off with another woman? Surely not. And then there's the crushing mortgage. The life insurance would pay that out, but could Catherine keep up with all the other expenses? Would they have to sell and move into some dingy rental?
The Boss sat down with an audible sigh of relief. 'Any idea what problems you've created for me? How much running around we've had to do?' He splayed his arms indicating the other three men. 'You've given us a right run-around. You know that? Driving back and forth to darkest bloody Norfolk. And why pick that frigid hole to run to? Think we wouldn’t find you there?'
'This is where I live, where I've always lived. My name's Mike, not Tommy.'
'Oh, you're not there anymore,' he said with a short laugh. 'This isn’t bloody Norwich. You're back on home turf now, Tommy boy. Back in town. Amongst your friends, so to speak.'
Turning his head slightly to address the other men he said, 'Any of you know about Tommy being an identical twin?' There was a snicker followed by a murmured, 'No boss.'
'Wait. Wait. Look in my wallet. Please.'
I hated pleading, but I was afraid – I was terrified. I didn’t want to be hit again, and didn’t want to die either, which seemed a real possibility.
'And what will we learn, that you had the foresight to get false papers? Credit cards and a driver's licence in another name?' He raised a finger. 'Okay. Let's have a look inside his wallet.' The big guy who hit me before moved forward, then his boss said, 'But hit him first.'
He did, and again I was left fighting for breath as he ripped the front pocket of my trousers and took my wallet. He stepped back and handed it to his boss, then returned to his position behind him, a satisfied grin on his face.
The short, well-dressed man who I now thought of as The Boss, opened my wallet, pulled out the cash and let it fall to the floor beside him.
'Let's see.' He held the licence at arm's length so he could read it. 'Mike Bray? Is that the best you could come up with? Bray? Like a bloody donkey?'
'It's my real name.'
'I'm a steel worker. Look at my hands. Look at the scars. I bet Tommy hasn’t got hands like mine.' His eyes registered the first shadow of doubt, but then just as quickly it was gone again.
'Don't worry about your hands. These guys are going to take care of them shortly.' Without looking round he said, 'Any of you want to give Tommy a manicure?'
I wished I hadn’t said anything and tried to slow my breathing, knowing a manicure would involve pruning shears or bolt-cutters. When the big guy reached into his pocket I feared it was about to begin, but his hand came out holding an iPhone. He read something on the screen, then walked forward and spoke close to his Boss's ear. The short, fat man gave a single nod, then left the room, two of the others left with him. It was me and the big hitter facing each other. I braced for what was coming. He stared with the malevolence of a tightly-wound psychopath. Like a Pitbull in jeans and leather jacket that had scented blood.
An agonising hour passed before a door to my left crashed open. Two men bundled a third man into the room. I hadn’t seen the other two before. One of them hit the third man hard in the kidney sending him sprawling on the floor in front of me.
When he turned his head and looked at me, my blood ran cold. He was me, my doppelganger, an exact replica, even down to the way my hair wouldn't lay flat on the top of my head. Something Catherine often teased me about. We stared at each other until the big hitter walked between us and used his foot to push him onto his back. He looked down at the man who I knew must be Tommy, looked at me, then back to Tommy. 'Well I'll get stuffed.'
Before he could say or do anything else the Boss came back in, his face dark, the corners of his mouth set downward.
The two men who'd brought him in started going through Tommy's pockets until the boss shouted, 'All of him. Search all of him. Get his fucking kit off and make sure he's not wired.'
They ripped and tore at his clothes until the wretched Tommy lay naked on the floor. I was gob-smacked how even his physique was the image of mine. My girls are identical twins, but most people can tell them apart once they've known them a short while. I doubt anyone could have told Tommy and me apart.
Tommy hadn’t said a word since he'd been dragged in, neither had I. They knew I wasn’t Tommy, so I breathed a bit easier knowing they'd soon let me go.
The boss was on his feet and stood over naked Tommy who wouldn’t meet his eyes. Without warning he kicked him in the gut. Tommy writhed around on the concrete floor, but still maintained his silence.
'I'll have more to say to you later, you greedy, deceptive piece of shit.' Then he turned to me. 'And what am I going to do with you, Mike Bray?'
'Let me go. I won't say a word. I promise. I just want to get out of here and go home to my family.'
He seemed to be considering it for a long moment. 'Family important to you is it?' He raised a thick hand. 'Don’t answer, that was rhetorical. I know you love your family. Catherine and the girls. Such pretty girls, too. I bet you'd do anything to protect them, wouldn’t you? Again, a rhetorical questions so don't say anything. Now, Tommy here,' he turned and kicked him, 'who, by the way is remarkably similar to you in appearance, has been a bad boy, so I'm going to have to punish him.' He kicked Tommy a third time, then took two steps closer to me, until his face was less than a foot from mine.
'Remarkable, wouldn’t you say so, boys?'
There were affirmative murmurs, and the big hitter shuffled his feet and said, 'Remarkable boss.'
He studied me, like an anthropologist who'd just discovered a new specie. 'Remarkable,' he said again. 'You're not related to him are you – to that snivelling piece of dog shit laying on the floor?'
Through the fear and dry throat I pushed out, 'No. Never seen him before.'
'Except every morning staring back at you as you shave. You must admit you two look identical. So alike in fact, nobody would know you're not Tommy, and Tommy's not you. Wouldn’t you agree?'
'Yes.' I had a bad feeling about where things were going.
'Good. You see, Tommy's bad behaviour has left me with no choice but to kill him. Wouldn’t you boys agree?' Again the murmured affirmation. 'But killing him leaves me in an awkward situation. Very awkward situation indeed. Not only that, as if that's not enough, but killing him will upset his lovely wife, and I don't want to upset his lovely wife. But I do want to kill him.' He put his face up close to mine. 'Now, how could I possibly get around this dilemma? Any ideas, Mike?'
Despite it being crystal clear, I said, 'No.'
He chuckled. 'Oh, I think you do. I think you get my drift.' He sat back in the chair. 'Untie him, Danny.'
The big guy, Danny, moved forward grinning at me as he approached. He cut the tapes binding my ankles, then untied the rope that trussed me up against the wall. My arms fell, and pain seared through my upper body.
'Give him a drink.'
Danny handed me a bottle. I shook my head, not trusting what it might contain.
'Drink.' The boss said. 'It's water, not bloody poison. I want you alive and healthy.'
The water tasted good, but I only took a small drink. After swallowing and clearing my throat I said, 'Why?'
'Why do I want you healthy? Because you're going to do a little job for me. It's not hard, and you'll enjoy it. Or most of it.'
It was obvious refusing wasn’t an option. 'And after that?'
Danny stepped close to me, but the boss held up a restraining hand.
'After that, you'll return to Catherine and the girls. Sophie and Sarah. Nice names. Traditional. Not like so many nowadays. Sky, Meadow, bloody Paris. Why would you call your kids names like that? The parents must bloody hate them.'
He would have learned my girl's names from the photograph in my wallet. He also had my address, and his words were a thinly veiled threat to my family.
'I asked you a question, Mike. People who work for me answer my questions, don’t they boys?'
The predictable murmur of yes boss.
I said, 'Yes, Sophie and Sarah.'
'Get him a seat.'
The second guy, not Danny, stepped forward and picked up the chair the boss had been using, but before he'd taken a step towards me the boss yelled, his voice echoing off the bare concrete walls, 'Not that one, fucking retard, that's my chair. Get another one.'
He hurried away with an apology, returned seconds later and placed a painted wooden chair behind me.
'Take a seat, Mike.' His tone kind, reasonable.
I sat and watched him pick up the cash he'd dropped on the floor and stuff it back in my wallet. Then he put the wallet into his jacket pocket. He dragged the other chair close and sat so that our knees were touching. Fear held my revulsion in check.
'Well, this is a funny old situation, isn’t it? Not funny for you as in make you laugh funny. Not for me either. But you know what I mean, don’t you?' He waited.
'I'm not finding it funny at all.' I said.
'I'm sure you're not. Sure you're not. Come on, Mike.' He stood, then gripped my upper arm and helped me stand. 'Let's go and talk in a more comfortable place. Are you hungry? I bet you are after all this excitement.' He snapped his fingers at the man standing beside Danny. 'Ken. Go up to High Street and get some fish and chips. Haddock, get haddock. I didn’t think much of that cod last time. And bring back some beer for the boys.'
We went out of the door which Tommy had been dragged through a short while before. He was still lying unconscious on the cold concrete floor, blood running from his mouth and eye. He'd be dead soon, and I'd be taking his place, living his sorry gangster life.
At the end of a corridor lit by a single fluorescent tube was another wood-panelled door. The short fat man pushed it open and walked through. I caught the back-swing and followed him. For an instant I thought about running, then I thought about Catherine and the girls. I'd die a painful death before putting them in danger.
At the top of a single flight of stairs we passed through another door and entered a large room, a mix of lounge and office. A large oak desk with an inlaid leather top dominated one side, two chesterfield lounges and two club armchairs on the other side. Bookshelves lined either end wall and appeared to hold a mix of legal tomes and cheap fiction.
Danny came in, closed the door and stood in front of it. The boss sat behind the large desk and ran his hand over the green leather inlay, contemplating what to say. 'My name's Sidney Greener. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t tell you my name, but you're going to need to know. Have you heard of me?'
I shook my head. 'No.'
'No. I guess existing in bloody Norfolk you wouldn’t have. But in parts of London I'm well known. Well respected. Even feared a little by some, but only by those who've wronged me. People such as your mirror image Tommy Boronovski. He's been wronging me, which is why he's lying on the floor. Sit down, Mike. Relax. All that unpleasant stuff is finished. We're just going to have a bite to eat and a chat.'
I sat in an armchair set against the wall. Sidney Greener grinned. 'Keeping your distance, Mike? That's okay. We'll get to know each other soon, and you'll find I'm not as bad as you're thinking I am right now. When you understand the level of betrayal Tommy sunk to, you'll understand why I was so unhappy with him.' He glanced at Danny. Get us some coffees, Danny.'
I said, 'Tea. I drink tea.'
Greener raised his eyebrows, then turned his head to Danny. 'Tea for me as well, Danny. Keep it simple.' He smiled, rubbed his palms together like we were about to share secrets, brimming with bonhomie.
'With honey, not sugar,' I added as Danny turned to leave. His glare slid into a malicious grin. I knew I'd pay for that later. The door closed silently behind him and I was alone with Sidney Greener who I could take down in a brawl with one hand. We both knew it, but he wasn’t worried. Maybe he had a gun, maybe not, but one certain thing was he had muscle just the other side of the door ready to come in and save his hide, and then beat me well. When I turned my head and looked at him, he was studying me with a mix of curiosity and amusement.
He shook his head slowly. 'Uncanny. I'd never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Two men so identical, yet unrelated. You're not related, are you? No. I'd know if you were. You see, I know a lot about Tommy. In fact I'd go so far as to say I know him better than anyone. Better even than his lovely wife. And she is lovely, as you'll find out.'
He waited for a response. Silence hung between us, thick and awkward.
'Well, this is a funny old situation isn’t it, Mike? But one that could help us both.'
'How's that? How could this possibly help me?'
The door opened before he could answer. Danny came in carrying two mugs of tea which he put down on the desk before taking up his position by the door.
'Go and keep an eye on things, Danny. Mike and I are fine.' When Danny hesitated, Greener said, 'Go on. I'll call if I need you. Keep Tommy company. But don’t kill him.'
Danny gave me one more threatening look, then left and closed the door silently behind him.
'He's a good man Danny is. Would lay his life down for me. Dam near did once. Loyalty's important, don't you think, Mike? You'd be loyal, I bet. A loyal husband. Good father, too. A regular hardworking good bloke. That's what I see in you now. All you want is to get back to your wife and kids, right? Of cause it is. It's only natural.
'Thing is … thing is, Mike, I never allow anyone to have something over me. Never tolerate it. Not anymore. Know what I mean? And now, if you walk out of here, get in your van and drive home to the family, you'd have something over me.' He counted off on his fat fingers. 'Assault. Kidnapping. GBH. Deprivation of liberty. And you'd be right, wouldn’t you? You'd have a fair shot at getting the police to charge me. Then there'd be the question of Tommy and what happened to him. That could be a bit awkward.' He sipped his tea and stared at me.
Someone tapped on the door, and then the thug called Ken came in carrying packets of fish and chips wrapped in white paper. It must have been eight hours since I'd eaten and the smell hit me hard. The pissed-off side of me wanted to tell him to bash them up his arse, but the logical side said to eat and keep my strength up. It would also allow him to think he was manipulating me – which he wasn’t. Ken placed one paper packet on the desk in front of his boss, the other he dropped on the seat beside me.
As soon as the door had closed, Sidney Greener said, 'Fish and Chips. It's good, honest food. Traditional for a Friday as well. The boys eat that foreign muck. Thai, Indian, bloody Chinese. Me, I prefer this.' He stabbed a blunt finger at the paper package then ripped it open, sucking the steam in through his bulbous veined nose.
My hunger and survival sense got the better of my anger. We ate in silence for a while. He watched me as he ate like a man starved, instead of one who carried a spare twenty pounds on his gut. The salt stung where the tape had pulled skin off my lip, but I hid it and ate fast. When I was finished, I tipped back the mug of tea and drained it.
I screwed the paper wrapping into a ball, dropped it on the floor, and said, 'So what do you want, Mr Greener?'
'Call me Sidney. Mr Greener sounds too formal. We're going to spend a bit of time together over the coming days, so we might as well be on first name terms, don’t you think so, Mike?'
If I'd told him what I was thinking, he'd have Danny beat me again.
'Sidney,' I said with exaggerated patience. 'What do you want?'
'I want you to be Tommy Boronovski. Just for a week or so. That's all it'll take. Then you can go home to your family. They'll be dying to see you by then.'
'And I'll tell them what? I got lost on the way home? I ran into my old pal Sidney who needed a favour for a week. My life will be over. My marriage will be over, and my girls will never trust me again. And how can I be Tommy? I know nothing about the arsehole other than he looks like me. So alike that your goons pulled me off the street and beat me instead of him.' My voice had been rising in pitch and volume as I spoke, so I took a slow breath to calm myself.
Sidney Greener studied me with a bemused look. 'It'll be okay, Mike. I'll tell you everything you need to know to be Tommy. All his ticks and quirks. What I need you to do, is get a little information for me. You see, I'm a business man, and Tommy … Tommy's like … was like, a subcontractor. He took care of certain business details I didn’t have time to handle myself. Same in your line of work too, I'd guess. You'd use sub-contractors, wouldn't you?'
Ignoring his question, I said, 'After that, I'd still have something over you. If I played at being Tommy, did what you wanted, I'd have even more over you than I do now.'
He smiled. 'Things have a way of levelling out. By the time you go home, we'll both have things. You'll have things over me, I'll have things over you. One cancels out the other, don’t you think?'
I guessed he was referring to me playing Tommy with Tommy's wife. How could I explain that to Catherine? Even if nothing happened, the fact I'd been living with her would be enough. I hadn’t even thought about how I could explain the missing time to her, even for one night. What would I say arriving home hours late with a swollen lip and bruised ribs? She knew me far too well for lies. After a week? What could I possibly tell her other than the truth which would sound like a deranged fantasy. Somehow, I had to get word to her.
When I woke the following morning I replayed the unbelievable events of the previous night.
Abducted, beaten, meeting my doppelganger, eating fish and chips with a murdering gangster, then having a bag pulled over my head before being transported to wherever it was I was confined.
It was clearly a high-rise, ruling out any chance of jumping out of a window. The entrance door was locked, and I imagined hard-hitting Danny seated on the other side. I used the toilet, then splashed cold water over my face. When I looked in the mirror, my lip didn’t look as bad as it felt. I pulled open the cabinet and found a new toothbrush, toothpaste, disposable razors and shaving foam. I cleaned myself up, but decided not to shower. The thought of being naked when Danny or whoever came in was too much. It was then I noticed my wedding band was no longer on my finger. The engraved ring Catherine had given me eighteen years ago had been taken without me knowing. I had to assume they'd drugged me, sedated me to keep me from making a fuss in a public space.
Less than thirty seconds after I came out of the bathroom the door opened and a man I'd not seen before came into the room. Without any introductions he asked what I wanted for breakfast. I told him I wanted a full fried with lots of tea. There was the clunk of the lock turning when the door closed behind him.
My phone and wristwatch were gone, and there was no clock in the room. There wasn’t much of anything. A bed with a print of Tina the Swamp Girl above it, and a cheap cabinet beside it. No clock-radio, no Gideon's bible in the top drawer.
When breakfast arrived twenty minutes later, I could smell coffee, so I said, 'What happened to the tea?' The guy was well dressed in slacks and button-up shirt. One of Sidney Greener's staff I guessed.
He was unloading the tray, and without looking at me, he said, 'Tommy drinks coffee. Mr Greener says from now on you'll eat and drink what Tommy eats and drinks.'
I was in no position to argue.
From the height of the milky sun hidden behind sullen clouds I guessed it was mid-morning when the same guy returned and told me Mr Greener wanted to see me. I followed him out of the room, down a hallway and into a lounge. Danny was there, malevolence on his face, and a black bag in his hand. I guessed the lights were about to go out. And they did.
With the bag over my head and Danny's huge paw on my shoulder, I stumbled along reacting to the push and shove guidance. We descended in an elevator for thirty seconds, then the doors hummed open and the smell of oil, decay, and stale piss hit me. From the smells and the echo of Danny's leather soles on the concrete floor, I guessed we were in the underground parking. More pushing and shoving, then a hand on the top of my head and I was sitting in the back seat of a car. Doors slammed, the engine fired, and the acceleration pushed me back in the seat.
Nobody spoke as we stopped and started in heavy traffic, then after about an hour we hit clear roads. Maybe a motorway. I sat passively, taking comfort in what Greener had said the previous night. He needed me to play Tommy, so I figured they weren’t taking me to some remote spot to kill me.
After another hour or more we left the motorway. The car cornered hard around what I assumed was a small country road. There was no traffic noise, just the roar of the engine and the sound of the tyres fighting for traction on the corners. I'd been trying to memorise the journey, but gave it up as pointless and something that only worked in Hollywood. Half an hour later the car slowed and swung hard to the left, then road noise was replaced by the crunch of gravel. The car stopped, doors opened. I was pulled out and somebody tugged the bag off my head. I squinted, blinked and rubbed at my eyes.
We were standing in front of a large country house, four-square, built of stone with a slate roof. Sidney Greener was standing beneath the pale sandstone portico in front of an imposing studded timber door, as if to welcome an honoured guest. A crow cawed in a plane tree at the head of the drive, the car's engine ticked as it started to cool. Otherwise it was completely silent. The sky was overcast and there wasn’t the least breath of wind.
Danny shoved me towards the smiling Greener. My footsteps sounded loud on the gravel, as did Danny's behind me. Greener looked at me with a self-satisfied grin as I approached.
'Come in, Tommy.'
The room we entered was a study. It had one large window with a view of the drive and front garden. Greener sat in a club chair, Danny stood by the door which he'd closed behind him. There was a third man, standing by the window and looking intently at me.
'Fucking remarkable,' he said, exchanging a glance with Greener. 'You sure it's not him?'
'Oh, we're sure. Tommy, the real Tommy … he's currently indisposed. This is Mr Mike Bray, or was I should say. From now on, this is Tommy Boronovski.' He turned and looked at me. 'Mike … woops, sorry. Tommy, this is Alex, he's going to help you to transition. Aren't you, Alex?'
Alex walked over and scrutinised me. 'Truly fucking remarkable. Almost identical.'
Greener stood. 'Almost? What do you mean, almost. He's exactly.'
Alex's face was only inches from mine. 'Say something to me?'
I shrugged and said, 'Something to me.'
His stubbled square jaw thrust forward in typical alpha male mode. 'Fucking lippy as well, eh.'
Greener stood to the side of us, looking from me to Alex. 'What?'
'The nose. It's his nose'
'What about it?' Greener asked.
Alex said, 'Say you name. Say, my name's Tommy Boronovski. Go on.'
I did as he told me, trying to sound bore instead of afraid.
'What did I say?' Alex said, turning his gaze from me to Greener. 'It's the nose.'
Greener stroked his chin as he studied my face.
'It's in the voice, too,' Alex added. 'The voice'll trip 'im up.'
Greener pursed his lips and let a long breath out through his nose.
Alex nodded towards the door. 'Danny.'
Before I could turn, Danny grabbed me, pulling me against his barrel chest and locking my arms against my sides. He was even stronger than he looked. I couldn’t move. Alex looked at Greener. Greener nodded.
Alex's fist crashed into my nose. The pain was intense. He drew back, tipped his head to one side to assess his handiwork.
Greener was looking, too. 'Think that'll do it?'
Alex tipped his head from side to side, contemplating whether he needed to break my nose more. 'I think it'll do nicely, and it'll cover up that slight difference in his voice.'
Greener looked at the blood running down my front. 'Get a towel, Danny. This carpet cost a bloody fortune.' Danny released me, the door opened. Greener said, 'Sorry about that, Tommy. But in a way it was for your own good.'
Danny came back into the room and thrust a towel at me, a grin easing his mouth upward at the corners. I looked from one to the other and bled into the towel.
Breakfast was brought to my room at 07:30 each morning. At 08:30 the door was unlocked and I'd go down into the study where Greener, Danny, or Alex would school me in being Tommy Boronovski. I had no option other than to play along. Greener kept reassuring me it would be for just a month or so. 'That's all it'll take. Just a month.' They showed me endless pictures of Tommy's family, friends, and acquaintances. He didn’t have kids, not much family at all other than an aging uncle, two nieces, and of course, his wife, Roberta.
Concentration was difficult with my thoughts constantly on Catherine and the girls. Whatever were they going through? They'd be thinking I'd abandoned them. Run off with another woman.
Each day the swelling of my nose reduced, and the bruising changed colour. By day four there was yellow bruising around the bottom of my eyes, and a sideways bend in my previously straight nose. It was still sore, but most of the swelling had gone. My voice was more nasal, and it must have been more like Tommy's judging from how pleased Alex and Greener were by the changes.
Noon of the fifth day – must have been a Wednesday – I heard a car stop on the gravel driveway. It was the first time I'd been aware of anyone visiting, something I assumed was discouraged. Greener smiled as if sharing a private joke with himself.
'School's out, Tommy. Mum's coming to take you home.'
I stood by the window and looked out at the car which had just stopped. The driver, a man in his mid-twenties, got out and immediately lit a cigarette, then turned and said something to the woman who'd slid out of the back seat. She frowned, he grinned. It was Tommy's wife, Roberta Boronovski.
I sensed Greener standing beside me. 'You'll like her. We all do. She was always far too good for him – the real Tommy.'
'How so?' I said turning away from the window and facing him.
'He used to mess around with other women. Mainly scrubbers who hang around the clubs. Sometimes word got back to her, and it upset her. As it would. No idea what she saw in him.'
'Maybe his good looks. And maybe that bang on the head will straighten him out,' I said without thinking. It was the first light-hearted thing I'd said to him, and I immediately regretted it.
He studied me for a moment. 'Let's hope so, Tommy. I told her you'd been away on a job for me. He'd often do that for a few days, so nothing unusual. However, poor old Tommy got coshed on the back of the head, and he's not his old self at the moment. He's looking a bit wan, and having trouble with his memory.'
'I'm not ready. And why spring it on me like this? It seems I've got no choice but to play along with this hare-brained scheme of yours, which means we have to work together. Bringing her in like this is not a good idea. She'll know straight away. She'll know as soon as we're alone together.'
'If I say you're ready, you're ready.' He held out a wedding band. 'Here, put this on.'
'It's in safe keeping. I'll give it back to you at the end of your time as Tommy. For now, put this on, greet her like you love her, or can at least stand the sight of her. It won't be hard.'
I snatched the ring from his outstretched hand and pushed it on my finger. 'Was he affectionate towards her? In public? Did you ever see him hug her?'
'Not often. Not as often as I would in his place. Keep it low key and follow her lead.'
Before I could respond the door opened and Roberta Boronovski walked in smiling and headed straight for me. I put my arms around her and breathed in perfume like a summer garden, offering silent profuse apologies to my family.
I'm doing it for you, for us. None of this is real or means anything. None of it. Not the warmth of my arms, or the soothing hand moving slowly up and down her back. Not the pressure of her chest against mine, nor the gentle breath on my neck. None of it.
We let each other go at the same moment. 'Why didn’t you tell me you were going away, Tommy? I didn’t know what had happened.'
Greener jumped in before I could answer. 'It's my fault, Robbi. I bundled him onto a plane faster than he could make a call. But he's back now – albeit a bit knocked around and getting over a nasty dose of the lurgy. But he's back. That's the main thing. It's the aeroplanes, you know. You always get sick on the aeroplanes. All those bloody germs circulating. People coughing and sneezing. It's why I go first class. Less of it there. Less bloody screaming kids, too.'
He was saying too much, holding the floor while Roberta Boronovski and I stood there. She was side-eyeing me, maybe waiting for me to interject. She looked as awkward as I felt. Both of us uncomfortable in Greener's dominating presence.
As Greener, Alex, and Danny had grilled me and pumped information at me over the course of the previous days, it had been mentioned several times, particularly by Greener, how 'lovely' Tommy's wife was. And she was. At least on a physical level. Despite my situation, my love for my wife and daughters, I had to concede she was attractive. She had a soft face, somewhere between innocent and kind. She was modestly dressed in jeans, a white shirt with a grey flannel jacket. Her skin was clear, and she didn’t look like a druggy, smoker or heavy drinker. I wondered why she'd married Tommy, and associated with criminals like Greener, then dismissed it as irrelevant. The only thing I needed to think about was getting through the next few weeks, doing Greener's bidding, then getting back to my life. To my family. I had no idea what was happening with Catherine and the girls, work, or anything else. I'd had no access to newspapers, internet, or TV. Catherine would have reported me as missing, but beyond that, I didn’t have a clue what was happening in their lives.
Soft warm fingers brushed against my palm and interlaced with mine. 'Are you okay, Tommy?'
'He'll be fine, Robbi. Truth is, he's been here for a couple of days, recuperating. I didn’t want to worry you. Like Danny told you, he got mugged, and hasn’t been his old self. So I made him stay here with me a couple of days to rest and recover before going home. Like I said, I … we didn’t want to worry you.' A fatherly hand squeezed my shoulder. 'But you're fine now aren't you, Tommy boy?'
'Sure. I'm fine,' I said, not looking at either of them.
Roberta slipped her hand from mine. 'You don't sound or look fine. We'd better get you home. Look at your face. Who hit you?'
'It was nothing.' I said. 'I got mugged coming out of a hotel in Madrid. Couple of days I'll be my old self. Only better.'
'Did you report it?' she asked. Her voice a mix of concern and puzzlement.
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