CHAPTER: 12345, 6789101112131415161718192021222324252627, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32EPILOGUE

‘Emmet works for Obo now.’

The words reverberate through Judd’s brain. He can’t believe what he’s hearing. He’s sure that it’s a joke, some strange way for Reece to get back at him.

“What?” Judd says. “What are you talking about?”

“He called Obo last night,” Reece explained, “He doesn’t think you’re hard enough, he doesn’t think you’re going to last. Obo offered him a good deal the other day and he’s been thinking about it for a while. I guess he finally made up his mind….”

“FUCK!” Judd shouts.

He hangs up, not wanting to hear any more. His blood pounds, he can hear his heart beat in his ears. He swears in his head as he paces back and forth across his living room. He can’t believe that Emmet has done this to him, after everything that Judd has done for Emmet. He’s turned around and gone over to the enemy.

“Fuck them,” he snarls, “Fuck them both. Fuck the whole lot of those ungrateful tossers. They’re welcome to each other. They deserve each other,”

He doesn’t want to admit it but Emmet’s betrayal stings. His heart hurts when he realises that he’s lost Emmet as a colleague and a friend for good. He can feel tears starting to well up in his eyes and he swipes them away. He finds his phone from wherever he threw it.

“Connie?” he says quietly, “Can I come over? I don’t know what to do and I need to talk to someone,”

“Of course you can,” she says softly, “Come right over and I’ll put the kettle on.”

She must have seen something on his face because as soon as Judd is through her front door she wraps her arms around him and holds him tightly. He eventually raises his arms and hugs her back. He buries his face in her hair for a moment, trying desperately to regain control.

Within moments she has him sat on the sofa with a cup of tea in one hand. The other is held in both of hers, her thumb rubbing gently back and forth across the skin of his palm.

“What’s wrong?” she asks gently, “You look broken,”

“I think I am,” he says bleakly, staring at the swirls of milk as they roll around his tea. “I don’t know what to do, everyone’s just abandoned me,”

“Start at the beginning,” she suggests gently, “I’m sure that we can figure something out,”

So Judd does. He tells her everything. About the drug dealing, about Charlie disappearing, about Obo trying to take control, about the meeting with Mr Big. He leaves out no detail and Connie gasps in surprise at everything.

“And now,” he says, his voice breaking, “Now my friends have left me. They’ve let me down. One left me because I was too hard, too focused on getting vengeance. Reece has always been like my brother, he’s always been the one to talk me down when I got wound up. And now he’s gone. The other’s abandoned me and changed sides because he doesn’t think I’m vengeful enough. He thinks I won’t act to defend myself when it really comes down to it. Not now. And he’s gone over to join Obo.”

“Well it sounds like he wasn’t a very good friend to begin with,” Connie said softly, “If he’s going to leave you because he’s scared he wasn’t a true friend at all.”

“But Reece left me too,” Judd snaps, “Things got hard and he bailed. He even tried to talk me into doing the same thing.”

“Because he cares about you,” Connie points out. “He doesn’t want to see you get hurt so he wants you to step back. And I think you should listen to him.”

“What?” Judd asks, looking at her, “How can you say that?”

“I’m saying it because I care about you,” Connie says, looking him right in the eye, “Your world, your business, it’s all built on vengeance. Someone wrongs you so you punish them back. But if other people don’t see it as punishment, if they see it as you trying to step on their territory, well they’ll just punish you right back because you’ve wronged them. And it just keeps happening. You don’t talk to each other, none of you really knows each other. And when you’re operating by a code of honour that uses vengeance as a tool it’s only going to end up in someone dying.”

Judd doesn’t say a thing. He just looks at his tea and eventually takes a sip. It tastes good, better than he expected. He looks at Connie when she shifts in her seat.

“Your world is all about survival of the fittest,” Connie says, leaning forward. “Remember what I said in class, what everyone was pointing out. With that way of thinking and acting it doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong in an argument. It only matters who’s stronger, who’s more willing to do what they have to in order to survive. People have to make tough, brutal decisions that you might not agree with or be willing to match. With survival of the fittest, with vengeance, whoever is willing to go as far as they have to is going to win, no matter what. Are you willing to do whatever it takes to keep your business? Are you willing to keep living in a world where someone could kill you in a moment? Are you willing to take another person’s life to keep your business going? Are you the fittest?”

She sits back and watches Judd. His eyes flick back and forth, he’s thinking about what she’s said. In her mind he is the fittest, not in terms of physical strength of course, she’s seen the other drug dealers that operate in Farlow. Compared to them Judd is tiny. No, for Connie, Judd’s strength lies in his mind, in his ability to out think his opponents and think three steps ahead of them. But he’s losing that edge, the stress is making him unravel and it’s almost painful to watch. He isn’t willing to disregard the lives of other people, he cares about them, she knows that, it’s why he has so many rules about weapons, where his guys drop off and who they sell to. If he didn’t care then he’d run his operation however he wanted, his guys would probably carry guns and they’d do house deliveries. Kids in his territory would probably be off their heads on coke if Judd didn’t have those rules. And that caring is his strength as well, his convictions and his willingness and determination to make sure that he and everyone else under his control live by them make him strong because they make him likable. He cares about people and in return they care about him.

She can see the pain on Judd’s face as he comes to the realisation that he isn’t the fittest person when it comes to surviving in the drugs world. He never could be. He has morals and convictions that he stands by. The people that he’s up against don’t.

Judd realises that Connie might be right. He also realises that Reece was trying to tell him the same thing, he just doesn’t have the ability with words that Connie has. She’s told him in frank, brutal terms, how his world really works, the way that it always has worked. Judd realises that he’s been deluding himself. He’s been trying to change things to work around him but everyone else just wants to keep things the way that they are. If things had changed Judd would be the strongest in that world. But his world is the same as it has ever been. It is dog eat dog, survival of the fittest. He wants to say that he is the fittest. But he knows that he can’t say that. He isn’t the fittest, he never really has been. He might talk a good talk and walk a good walk but at the end of the day, Judd knows that he won’t make the decisions that could hurt other people. He isn’t cut the same way as Obo or even Charlie. He doesn’t have that streak of ruthlessness and cruelty that everyone else seems to have.

It is in him to care about people. His dad taught him to believe that. It’s why he has so many rules, to make sure that as few people get hurt as possible. It keeps him safe too, him and his operation. But it could never have lasted forever because Judd won’t, can’t take those actions that he knows are wrong. He won’t step over the line that could make him a murderer and a monster.

Judd sighs heavily, realising that maybe, he might need to follow Reece’s advice. And his dad’s advice. It’s going to hurt, it’s going to be hard but it’s something that he needs to do. He looks at his watch.

“I have to go,” he says to Connie. He rises to his feet.

“But Judd…” Connie says. She stands beside him and puts a small hand on his wrist, “Judd, you’ve not answered my question.”

“I will,” he says. “I’ve just got something important I have to do at half twelve. I’ll give you my answer, I promise,”

Then he turns away and walks out of the door. Connie follows him quietly, not saying a word. Judd pauses and turns at the doorway. He looks at her and gently reaches up to stroke her cheek. He leans forward and softly kisses it.

“Thank you,” he whispers.

His lips close on hers for a fleeting moment and then he turns and walks away. Connie watches him go and can’t help but wonder if she’ll see him again.

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