Craig stands still in the hushed silence. Breathes in. Breathes out.
Five hostiles down. Threats eliminated.
Then he steps around to each fallen body. Kneels down to check necks and wrists. All five unconscious, with weak and reedy pulses. Maybe six weeks laid up in hospital, maybe a full two months out of action. Broken bones aplenty, concussions, shattered joints, mashed innards, crunched wedding tackle, crippling headaches, the whole nine yards. Anything goes; a good soldier never fights fair, he fights to win.
Major damage all around, but then the whole encounter had been entirely voluntary from the start.
Push open the wrong door, you get what you get.
The leader has a leather billfold packed with a folded wad of one-pound banknotes. Easy bribe cash, presumably. Take the money and keep your mouth shut. The Browning from an underarm holster. Fully-loaded, eight rounds in the magazine, one in the chamber, safety on. Better than a poke in the eye. Craig slips it into his right coat pocket with his switchblades and moves on to the others. Roots through coats and jackets. Three more leather billfolds stuffed with crinkled banknotes. A thick greasy roll of pound notes in each Italian’s inner pocket. Plus four coin-purses crammed full of shillings and sixpences and a gold sovereign apiece. Thick gleaming coins, fresh from the Mint; Saint George trampling the writhing dragon. Loads of money sloshing around, the leader had smirked. Craig pockets the lot. Spoils of victory.
He rolls each crumpled body onto its side. Still able to breathe, less likely to choke on blood and vomit. Foolish, perhaps. They’ll be out on the street again in two months. But better than letting them drown in their own blood and putting a police manhunt on his tail for murder. Besides, five crippled underlings is a far more effective message than five corpses in the morgue. Humiliation. Embarrassment.
Yer big soft heart, Ryan grins from the shadows. One day it’ll get you killed, Sarge.
But not today, Craig thinks. Not here.
Then he steps up to the bar, the other patrons melting away against the back walls. Craig takes out five creased one-pound notes and pushes them across the countertop, fanned out. He smiles at the bartender. Then around at the crowd. ‘If the police come asking, tell ’em the truth. A gang of Italians came barging in here and demanded you serve ’em drinks. Threatened to cause trouble. There was a fight. You didn’t really get a good look at the other guy. Just some random bloke who picked up everyone’s tab, right?’
Slow hesitant nodding, sly dawning grins all around the smoky room. Some raise their tankards to him. Others tip their caps. No local love nor loyalty for the Italians in Shadwell, that’s for damn sure. Five pounds for maybe tuppence a pint is what…six hundred pints’ worth? Enough beers to quench a rifle company for a whole week. Or maybe just one wild night out. Depends on the rifle company.
Reeling through Galway’s damp streets together with his friends, like a clumsy ten-legged beast. Liam and Ryan singing loud enough to wake the dead.
Craig blinks away the warm memories. Holds the bartender’s gaze.
‘You didn’t see the guy. Right?’
The bartender swallows. Squints. Wets his lips. Shrewd calculation churning deep in his eyes. Five pounds of easy cash. More than a month’s worth of tips. Take the money and keep your mouth shut. Then his shoulders unclench and he sweeps the bills off the counter into his apron pocket, quick and casual. Steps back. Shrugs.
Craig pats his shoulder. ‘Good man.’ He slides a fat gold sovereign across the counter. ‘For the damages.’ Then he glances over to the injured man slumped in a chair, three others tending to him with brandy-soaked rags.
‘How is he?’
The brawny stevedore grimaces. ‘Bearin’ up. ‘E’ll pull through, but ‘e’ll ‘ave a nasty scar to impress the ladies – won’tcha, Alfie?’ The injured man wheezes a rusty chuckle. Raises a shaky thumbs-up.
Craig presses a wad of Hog-Hair’s greasy banknotes into the stevedore’s gnarled paw. ‘For his hospital bill. It’s on me, okay?’
‘Nah.’ The stevedore smirks down at the crumpled bodies. ‘It’s on them.’ Muffled sniggers from all around. Someone spits.
Craig glances at the bartender. Who nods, final and resolute. ‘We won’t tell nobody, mate.’
‘So if anybody asks you who picked up the tab tonight, what d’you say?’
The bartender taps his nose, smirking. ‘The truth. Five well-dressed, rowdy Italians.’
‘Thanks.’ Craig turns and heads for the door, crowd parting before him. Nobody tries to stop him. He moves through the silent grinning onlookers and slips out into the gloomy street. Money in his left coat pocket. Weapons in his right. Pistol snug in his hand, cold comforting steel.
Cold night air washes over him. All clear. All quiet. A thick yellow fog unfolding through the street, deadening every sound. A distant dog barks. He turns and heads for the embankment. Glances back.
The pub door stays firmly closed. Nobody comes after him. He smiles.
Devastating force. Can’t beat it.
Red brick walls tower either side of him, dripping with moisture. Dim lights from behind curtained windows. He walks on. Hand curled around the pistol. The soft rumble of a distant train. The faint hissing squeal of iron rails.
All clear. All quiet.
He slows. Moves into the shadow of the wall and edges forward to the corner. A chill breeze off the river like a knife in the face. He scans the scene. All dark and quiet. To his right, the empty park. Rustling trees. On his left, the empty pavement stretching away into the gloom. Then the deserted embankment wall. Beyond that, nothing. Just the faint sound of lapping water and the wide sluggish river. No rattling wheels approaching, no running feet, no shrieking police whistles in the distance.
No parked carriages.
He crosses the street to the river wall. Checks left, right, ahead, behind. All quiet. Just cold air and silence and stillness, a night mist sweeping in. A rat scuttles across the cobbles and disappears over the edge with a faint splash. He moves on. Black lampposts loom out of the murky gloom like skeletal trees frozen in deep winter. A tangle of moored boats barely visible in the distance, ropes and rigging hanging down like entrails. No-one about. He moves on into the alley, scanning the curb. Salt in the air. The distant mournful cry of gulls wheeling and plunging over the brown sludge tide.
Forty-nine. Fifty. Fifty-one.
The glint of steel. Razor-sharp. Right where they dropped it. He picks it up and slips it into his right coat pocket with the knives. Smiles.
No sir, sorry sir. Didn’t get a good look at ‘im, sir. Average height. Dark hair. Long black coat. Dark trousers. Erm…grey jumper, maybe.
Of which there are maybe a hundred thousand such men around here. Safe as houses.
Pockets bulging with loot. Three money pouches. Close to thirty pounds cash, maybe. Plus two captured switchblades. One pistol. One chisel, freshly sharpened. Good haul.
The faint rattle of cart wheels. Clip-clopping hooves. ‘Yo, Craig!’
Craig melts against the embankment wall, right hand curled around his pistol. Eight rounds in the magazine, one in the chamber. He clicks the safety off.
A dray wagon clatters towards him. Two figures on the driver’s bench, one of them waving eagerly. ‘Hey, Sarge!’
He stares. ‘…Liz?’
The cart slows alongside him. Liz grins down. ‘Heard you ‘ad a spot o’ bother back there.’ Max hunched at the reins beside her, alert and awake. Owen and Rob wave from the load bed, alongside a woman with a hardscrabble face. Wheat blonde hair, cropped short. Flatcap set at a jaunty angle. Cheekbones sharp enough to cut glass. Pale blue eyes.
The woman winks at him. ‘Polly. Good to meet ya, Sergeant. How’s things?’
Craig breathes out. ‘All sorted now. Why’re you all here?’
‘Wanted to check up on you,’ Rob smiles. ‘Keep an eye on things.’
‘Rob filled us in,’ Owen grins. ‘Asked us to look out for you and the old folks. That okay with you?’
Craig inwardly winces. More warm bodies on site, more strangers who know his face, more connections, more weak links, more shatter points; more likely something will go catastrophically wrong in the chain of command.
His hands clench. ‘No need to bleed your folks,’ he mumbles. ‘Not for me.’
Rob’s eyes soften. ‘Repaying a favour. Never given up on a friend before, not about to start now.’ He shrugs. ‘Least we can do.’
Gratitude blooms deep in Craig’s chest, warm and comforting.
Max pats the space beside him. ‘Fancy a lift, mate? Where to?’
‘Clerkenwell,’ Craig smiles. ‘Granville Square.’
© 2017 Tom Burton