Nightfall. The moon slithers out from behind a cloud, bathing the cobbles in gleaming silver. Ellie’s place looks bright and welcoming ahead, warm golden light spilling out into the street. The place is heaving. The loud hubbub of chatter. Craig waits outside for a long minute, breathing slow and deep.
A bark of laughter.
It’s just a crowd. You’ve been in them before.
Then he dives into the throng.
It’s so crowded. Bodies pressing in on him, jostling him. Brushing his elbows, his back, his torso. Treading on his feet. Within three paces his brain is screeching and his body shakes.
And he only bought one knife. Ugh.
The musty odour of unwashed linen all around him. Grey flat caps. Ratty beanies. Creased trousers. Mud-spattered boots. Some in pale shirts and dark jackets, others cloaked in rough-spun blazers; all of them reeking of salt, smoke, grime and muck. Dockyard labourers. Factory hands. All rough men. All talking, joking, laughing. Wide crooked smiles in weathered faces. A solid wall of gnarled muscle to deal with.
If someone stands up.
He spies a two-seat table in the far corner of the room, and zeroes in on it through the close press of tables. No-one bumps him. He doesn’t lash out. No-one gets knocked down. The knife stays right where it should, tucked safely in the back of his belt.
He weaves through the bustling crowd to the corner table, takes the window chair. Back to the wall, the whole room in view, both exits clearly visible. No danger. Ellie and a brunette waitress darting between tables. Jamie and a stout blonde woman pouring pints behind the bar. Civilians everywhere. Talking. Laughing. Joking.
Space to his front. Space to his sides. All exits in view. No threats.
The buzzing in his ears recedes. His shoulders unclench.
Ellie weaves through the crowd to his table, beaming. ‘‘Hey, stranger. You came back!’’ She sets down a steaming mug of tea. He smiles back.
Warmth seeps through him.
Civvies may be soft and foolish and glaringly obvious, but they are generous with kindness. Like Esther. And her cookies. Kindness makes a quiet soothing space in the mind, like safety.
‘‘Busy night tonight, then,’’ he takes another sip. ‘‘Business good?’’
She nods. ‘‘Big footy match. Stratford Lads versus Millwall. Rough stuff.’’
She grins. ‘‘Ironworkers against bricklayers. Big rivalry.’’ Then taps the menu. ‘‘You fancy anything else?’’
He peers closer. ‘‘Could I, um…?’’
Her smile widens. ‘‘Sponge cake?’’
The bar is doing a roaring trade. And the place is packed. All the other tables are taken and people are shoulder to shoulder all around the room, except for a two-yard exclusion zone around his own table. Bottles and tankards slam back and forth; shillings, tanners and half-crowns head for the register like a raging river, rattling into the coin slots like stones down a deep well.
He smiles as the brunette sets down his cake. ‘‘Thank you, ma’am.’’
She giggles and flutters her eyelashes at him, then bustles away to the next table. He catches Ellie’s eye behind the bar, raises an eyebrow. She winks, tapping her nose.
The cake is really good. Tangy but sweet. He picks at it with a stubby fork. The bustling chatter of the crowd makes a dull hum in his ears as he chews. The muted thwock of a darts game behind him. The clink of glasses. A smattering of bawdy laughter.
The door opens, bringing with it a gust of evening chill.
And the entire room falls silent. Instantly.
All conversation in the crowded pub dies down. Sentences peter out, unfinished; glasses freeze halfway to mouths; eyes swivel; heads turn. A dart thumps into the wall beside the board. Jamie, who’s been bent beside a table chatting, draws himself erect.
Craig turns to look.
A short portly man stands there. He brushes the rain off his shoulders, surveying the silent room.
Stay down, you piece o’ shit!
This idiot again. Bloody hell.
A giant looms in the shadowy doorway behind Shorty.
Animosity and fear ripples out around the room in waves. Craig senses it; the growing panic of sheep unwittingly cornered by a fox.
Worse: a fox that can afford to employ wolves.
Not good at all.
Shorty smiles at Jamie. ‘‘We’re here to collect.’’
That same low mocking voice, full of command and arrogant entitlement. The kind of voice that never said please and never heard no. Jamie stiffens, rigid with fear. Like he was in the army and a superior officer had just screamed at him.
The giant settles onto a narrow stool by the door. It creaks under his weight. The other patrons huddle back over their drinks. The silence clamps down.
Shorty saunters over to the bar with a lazy kind of ease. The crowd clears before him, shuffling closer to their tables, eyes downcast, grim faces of guarded hostility. He leans over the countertop towards Jamie, who ducks through a small door in back. The cash office, presumably. His domain. The bustle of chatter starts up again, hesitant, quiet.
But the atmosphere of the whole room has changed.
Because no one ever says anything. They look instead. It’s all about the looking. The looking away, to be exact. Looks like they’re shunning, but really they’re scared of him. Some kind of bully. Unpopular, and he knows it. He knows people go quiet around him, looking away, not wanting to interfere, and he loves it. He loves the power. He revels in it. Basks in it, like a lizard on a sunbaked rock.
Craig can feel the icy fear seeping through the room, the unease spreading from table to table. People glance over at the new guy, smiles freezing on their faces, and they quickly turn back to huddle at their tables, hunched over their beers.
Shorty sits there, lazy and content, commanding and complacent. Sipping his drink. Right-handed. With everyone else looking away from him.
Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
The worst with a guy like that wouldn’t be too bad. He would come off the stool into a yard of clear space. There would be some huffing and puffing. Bullies got by on bragging, and boasting, and talking. All kinds of threats and taunts of ‘what are you looking at?’ They get by on reputation alone, and the worse the reputation, the less practice they get actually doing anything physical. Because other people always back off. So a bully’s skills are rusty and eroded. All bark, no bite.
Which is where the hulking giant by the door comes in. The muscle. A heavy-limbed thickset brute in a ragged overcoat, shaved scalp, overhanging brow, a jagged scar crawling across his cheek. Dark eyes blaze out from hooded sockets. Brawny. Barrel-chested. Ham fists. Scarred knuckles. Close to forty years old, probably. Maybe six-two. Maybe two-fifty. A primeval leg-breaker, like a bareknuckle prizefighter who’d survived twenty years, deep down in the catacombs among the rats and cockroaches.
The muscle is slouched in his seat, practically drooling over the dark-haired serving girl slipping between tables. She crosses the room, passes by him.
A beefy paw flashes out and snags her arm, gripping her elbow tight. She squeezes her eyes shut as he pulls her close, leering. ‘‘Heya, sweetheart.’’
Craig’s hackles rise.
Excellent target, mission.
Jamie reappears, squeezing past a spare keg of ale towards Shorty sitting on his stool. They face each other, just the shiny wooden countertop between them.
Everyone looks away.
The bartender is carrying something in his hand. Craig sees him hand it over fast and unobtrusive, like a magician. Shorty slips it into his pocket. It’s there, and then it’s gone.
But Craig saw.
A fat brown envelope, stuffed full of paper banknotes.
Protection money. Extortion.
Because of course. The dynamics of the city. Cities are dangerous. The strong prey upon the weak. So of course any bright thriving business would sooner or later get a visit on behalf of somebody wanting a steady stream of cash every week in exchange for not sending his boys in to smash it up with crowbars and pickaxe handles. Of course any visit would be followed by more visits. And more payments. As assurances. And the ever-present looming threat of violence.
During a lull, Ellie passes by. ‘‘Want another for the road, honey?’’
‘‘No, thanks.’’ He nods over to the guy at the bar. ‘‘What happens now?’’
Her smile wavers. ‘‘About what?’’
She’s looking away from the guy too.
‘‘You know about what.’’
Her face falls.
‘‘Who is he?’’
She frowns. ‘‘Just a customer.’’
‘‘Does he have a name?’’
‘‘I dunno. I mean, I’m sure he has a name, but I don’t know what it is.’’
Which sounds pretty damn suspicious. A guy like that, flaunting his power, everyone knows his name. Because a guy like that makes sure of it. He basks in it. In the respect it gives him. The fear it gives others.
You should know when you’re beat.
Craig blinks away the memory. ‘‘Does he come here often?’’
Ellie grimaces. ‘‘Once a week, every week.’’
‘‘So what happens now?’’
Her eyes dart over to Shorty on his stool, then back at the table. She shrugs, like a secret shame had been exposed. ‘‘We stay in business another week. We don’t get smashed up or burned out.’’
‘‘How long has this been going on?’’
‘‘Anyone do anything about it?’’
‘‘Not me. I like my face the way it is.’’
She smiles at him. It nearly reaches her eyes.
He puts down his mug. ‘‘The owner could still do something. There are laws, right?’’
She grimaces. ‘‘Not unless something happens. The cops say they need to see someone beaten. Or worse. Or the place up in flames.’’ She sighs. ‘‘We pay on time, no more problems.’’
‘‘What’s the guy’s name?’’
‘‘Does it matter?’’
‘‘Who does he work for?’’
But Ellie shakes her head, mimes zipping her mouth shut.
‘‘I like my face the way it is,’’ she repeats. ‘‘And I got a mum to look after.’’
‘‘Has anyone spoken out against it?’’
Ellie’s face falls. ‘‘Ask the poor lady down on Brick Lane. She told them she couldn’t pay anymore.’’
Her eyes glisten with tears. ‘‘Her shop burned down the next night. With her still inside. Someone barred the door. The police never found who did it.’’
She gives him a sorrowful look. Scrubs her eyes. Then collects his empty mug and heads back behind the bar counter.
Shorty stays where he is to finish his drink, ostentatiously slow. Savouring it. Lazy. Content. Taking his time. Rubbing it in. He had the power. He was the man.
Except he isn’t. He’s just an underling. A go-between. The thug at the door is hired muscle. That’s how it worked. The envelope would go straight to some shadowy figure at the top of the chain, and the guy on the stool would get a cut, like a wage. So would the thug.
Craig slides out of his booth, shuffles slowly through the subdued crowd to an empty stool at the end of the bar, puts the empty plate down. Shorty is leaning over the countertop, talking to the pale-faced barmaid. Hand sweeping side to side. Like a cudgel plowing through the bottles on the shelf. Then the hand chops up and down. Like a crowbar smashing the shelves behind, top to bottom. He waggles the stuffed envelope in her face. ‘‘…An’ if you don’t pay up in full, we’ll come round next time,’’ he drawls. Then he nods towards the thug fawning over the trembling waitress. ‘‘Maybe I’ll bring a few more of the lads wiv me, yeah? Make sure you cough up. If not…’’ He shrugs. Dances his fingertips along the countertop. ‘‘Be a cryin’ shame if somethin’ were to ‘appen to such a nice place, darlin’.’’
Craig’s teeth grind.
Over in the corner, the enforcer is slowly marching his fingers up the girl’s arm. She shivers, face tight with nausea as he drools over her. ‘‘ ‘Ere, luv, why dontch’a come round the back wiv me an’ let’s ‘av a good time, eh?’’
Craig’s fists clench.
Ellie is apathetically moving empty glasses around behind the bar. She’s not smiling anymore. Her eyes are downcast. Defeat and weary resignation in her face.
How dare they.
The giant has his hand splayed on the brunette’s thigh, his thumb an inch under the hem of her skirt as he croons into her ear. She’s shuddering with revulsion. The giant leans in. Licks her ear. She shivers and twists away.
Blood hisses through Craig’s ears. He plants his hands flat on the countertop. Pushes his seat back.
Ellie shoots him a terrified glance. Don’t get involved, her eyes scream. Don’t interfere. She shakes her head, a desperate sideways jerk. You’ll only make things worse. Her lips moving silently. Don’t. Please.
The other patrons hunch over their beers, heads down. Metalworkers, dockhands. Blue-collar, man and boy. By definition all hard men. They spend backbreaking long hours slaving away to put food on the table, up close to monstrous rusty ship hulks and scorching furnaces and bubbling vats and grinding gears and churning wheels and plunging steam hammers. At constant risk of agonising death from a dozen awful ways. Crushing, and falling, and maiming, and crippling, and amputations, and third-degree burns. Yet they still go in. The daily grind, every week. For their families. So they don’t scare easily.
Broad shoulders, weathered faces, callused hands.
All brawny tough guys.
All hard men.
All looking away.
Come on, guys. Someone take a stand. Someone. Anyone.
A solid wall of gnarled muscle, if someone stands up. Twenty hard men against two bullies. No contest.
If someone stands up.
Shorty finishes his drink and places his glass on the counter. Doesn’t pay. Jamie doesn’t ask him to. He eases back from his stool. Trails his hand over the counter.
And tips a plate onto the floor.
It shatters on the tiles, loud and dissonant in the hushed air. All mutterings cease. The silence clamps down.
The giant sniggers.
The dockhands hunch over their beers. The factory workers huddle closer around their tables. No-one speaks. Shorty smiles and swaggers over to the monstrous thug by the door, head up, lazy and confident, through a channel suddenly clear of people.
No-one meets his eye.
The giant licks the waitress’s ear again. Then he jerks upright and spills her off his lap. She sprawls onto the floor. The giant ambles towards the door, chuckling.
Shorty and his muscle saunter off down the street. Ellie hurries over and helps the whimpering brunette to an empty chair. The muted buzz of voices starts up again, despondent. Then Jamie comes out from behind the bar, kneels down to rake through the fragments of broken plate with his fingers. Cups his hands and starts pushing the white shards into a pile. ‘‘It’s alright, Susan,” he calls to the blonde barmaid. She continues listlessly cleaning glasses. Her eyes downcast.
Don’t intervene it’s not your concern stay on the mission don’t get involved…
Craig slips out of his seat to kneel beside Jamie. Spreads his napkin on the floor and starts sweeping the debris into it.
DON’T GET INVOLVED-
‘‘You okay?’’ he murmurs.
Jamie just shrugs helplessly, a miserable look on his face.
‘‘How much did they take?’’
‘‘How much did they take?’’ Craig asks again.
The bartender shrugs again, mouth twisted in a bitter smile. ‘‘Enough.’’
Craig just looks at him.
Jamie hesitates. Then his shoulders slump and he sighs. ‘‘Twenty quid. Normally ten every week, but it gets doubled whenever the place picks up.’’
Jamie nods, dejected.
‘‘Stretching back six months is what…two hundred and fifty pounds? Three hundred, give or take?’’
Another miserable nod.
‘‘You want to pay?’’
Jamie shrugs. ‘‘I need to stay in business, I guess. For Susan. Gotta keep a roof over our heads. Plus the wages for Ellie and Jane.’’ He nods over at Ellie huddled with the sobbing girl, a comforting arm wrapped around her trembling shoulders. ‘‘But paying out two bills a week ain’t gonna help me do that.’’
‘‘They’re evil,’’ Jane shudders in Ellie’s arms. Ellie holds her close, soothing. ‘‘Shhh. Jane. I know, love. They’re gone now.’’
The two shadows shrink into the distant gloom. One large. One small.
Don’t get involved it’s not your concern stay out of it don’t get involved...
Craig places a hand on Jamie’s shoulder. Squeezes gently.
Then he straightens up.
‘‘I’ll be right back.’’
© 2017 Tom Burton