“You should,” he says.
The guitar sits there on the floor between us, nestled in its case, inky black. Light from the bedsit’s bare bulb reflects on its curved face.
I cough, spitting blood through broken teeth.
He hunkers down next to me. Sixty, I guess. Strong. Big shoulders. Scarred face. He takes a pair of wire cutters from his pocket.
I’m trying not to cry.
“I can’t,” I say.
“Then why did you take it?”
“I thought I could sell it,” I say.
He points. “Do you know what that is?”
I shake my head.
“Course you don’t,” he says. “That’s a 1957 Gibson Les Paul Custom. All original. They call it the Black Beauty. I can’t tell you what it’s worth now, that doesn’t matter, but I can tell you I worked my arse off to buy it for my boy.
And it was worth every drop of blood and sweat to see him play it, to see him make his living off it, so he didn’t have to do the things I’ve done.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, but I know it’s too late.
“Sorry? Sorry you robbed it off him? Or sorry for putting him in hospital?”
“Then show me.”
“Show you what?”
Closer now. I feel his breath.
“Show me how bad you wanted it. Show me how much you wanted to play it. Look at it. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
I look at the guitar. I look at my fingers. I look at the wire cutters in his hand.
Snip, snip, snip.
“Pick it up and play it,” he says. “Play it well, or…”
I reach for the guitar, touch the strings with my fingertips.
The last thing they’ll ever feel.
Ratlines by Stuart Neville is out now (Vintage)