Nightfall in Clerkenwell. The cart clatters through the quiet streets. No people about. The night is alive with the screams of distant foxes, the invisible leathery rustle of bats’ wings overhead, the faint wails of owls. The switchblades a comfortable weight in Craig’s pocket. Liz and Max a warm comfortable presence beside him.
Granville Square glares out of the darkness. A row of towering flats scowling down on an empty expanse of railed parkland. They circle the square, Craig scanning the house plaques. Rookwood House looms out of the night before them. A vast looming residence dressed in muddy brown brick, bright cheery windows bordered with pale white marble slabs. Broad stone steps lead up to a yawning black doorway before him. An ornate iron balcony high on the second floor. Warm golden light within.
Hello, Mr Rossetti. Nice place you got there.
Craig jumps down. Glances around. The coast is clear. Steps up to the doorway. Turns back.
‘Want to see how the other half live, guys?’
Liz’s eyes gleam, bright and dangerous. ‘I thought you’d never ask, Sarge.’ She vaults down with Owen and Rob. Bobs a mock curtsey, proffering her arm. ‘Pray lead on, kind sir.’
Craig smirks, slipping his arm through hers. ‘Certainly, madam.’ He rings the doorbell.
A faint chime somewhere deep inside the house. They wait. One minute. Two.
The door creaks open. A maid peers out in her black blouse and white pinafore apron. Stooped and timid.
‘I’m here to see Mr Rossetti,’ Craig says.
‘Do you ‘ave an appointment?’ she quavers wearily. Drawled vowels, clipped tone. An Eastender, like Ellie.
‘Yes, I do.’
‘He didn’t tell me nothin’.’
‘He probably forgot,’ Craig shrugs. Leans in, conspiratorial. ‘I understand he’s a bit of a bastard.’
Her face twists. Not with shock or embarrassment. She’s fighting back a smirk. Overworked and underpaid workers the world over, slaving from dawn to dusk for a measly pittance. Probably spits in Rossetti’s soup, every chance she gets. ‘Who shall I announce?’
‘John Smith.’ He gestures to the others. Liz waves. Owen winks. Rob grins. ‘And his partners.’
The maid pauses. Finally smiles. ‘Real common name, John Smith.’
‘No problem,’ Craig smiles back. ‘Tell Mr Rossetti I work for a bank in the city and we’ve just discovered stock in his grandfather’s name worth about a thousand pounds.’
‘He’ll be real pleased about that,’ the maid smiles, and walks back inside. Craig follows her and watches her climb a wide staircase in back of the entrance foyer. The entrance hall alone is about the size of his whole flat, hushed and cool, panelled in golden hardwood polished to a deep lustre by generations of housemaids. A grandfather clock looms over him on the right, a slow sonorous ticking.
Liz digs him in the ribs, eyes sparkling. ‘Fancy digs, huh?’
Owen gazes around the foyer, eyes wide in wondrous disbelief. ‘Fuckin’ ‘ell. Swimmin’ in money, ain’t they?’
‘Damn right,’ Rob mutters.
‘We need to cut the phone lines,’ Craig murmurs. ‘Make sure Rossetti can’t call the police. Probably a switchboard in a butler’s pantry. Or a cloakroom near the kitchens.’ He passes Owen a switchblade. ‘Use this. You find any wires, rip ’em out.’ Owen nods. Ducks through a side door.
The maid reappears, almost gliding in her graceful descent downstairs, hand grazing the shiny oak bannister. ‘He’ll see you now,’ she chirps. ‘Second floor. He’s in his office, at the back.’
Craig smiles up at her. ‘Thank you very much. We’ll just be a moment.’ She nods, swishing away into the kitchens.
Owen rejoins them, grinning. ‘Butler’s pantry, just like you said.’ He hands back the switchblade, brushes off his hands. ‘Lines are dead. Good to go.’
An upstairs foyer with the same decor. Dripping with luxury. Cool white marble facings, oil paintings framed in gold leaf. Craig enters the office. Oak-panelled walls polished to a gleaming shine. Books on the shelves, thick cosy rugs on the floor, a crucifix on the wall. Floorboards dark and lustrous with a hundred years of wax. A man in a plush leather chair behind a polished mahogany desk. Another bare wooden chair facing it. A glass decanter on the table, filled with dark amber liquid. The balcony is open, curtain drapes rustling in a cool night breeze. The room oozes affluence and comfort. Liz strolls in close behind him, Rob covering his flank.
Owen moves into the shadow of the wall, closer to the door than the window. Pure habit, simple reflex. Invisible to a potential external sniper and close enough to the entrance to be all over an intruder the second the door swings open. Training stays with a person. Especially army training.
The man rises behind his desk. A thin figure. Hooked nose. Pale face, clean-shaven. Crisp blue pinstriped suit, with an immaculate pink tie over his pressed white shirt. Hair smoothed back, glossy with oil. Maybe mid-forties. Sharply dressed, like he’s ready to go out to a garden party with some fancy ladies. Or dining at the Ritz. Or the Savoy.
‘Mr Smith?’ he calls.
Craig walks over and sits down facing him, without waiting for an invite.
‘You got children?’
The man frowns. ‘…Two sons.’
‘She’s back in Sicily with them.’
‘So it’s just you and the maid in tonight?’
‘Why d’you ask?’ Impatient and puzzled, but polite, like people usually are when you’re about to offer them a thousand pounds.
‘I’m a banker,’ Craig smiles, open and friendly. ‘I have to ask.’
Rossetti’s eyes gleam hungrily. ‘Tell me about the stock.’
‘There isn’t any. I lied about that.’
A flicker of surprise in Rossetti’s face. Then disappointment. Then irritation. ‘Then why’re you here?’
‘I’m really a loan officer,’ Craig leans forward. ‘A person needs to borrow money, maybe he doesn’t want his household staff to know.’
‘But I don’t need to borrow money, Mr. Smith.’
‘You sure about that?’
‘That’s not what we heard.’
‘I’m a rich man. I lend. I don’t borrow.’
‘Really? We heard you had trouble meeting your obligations. To the bar owner of The White Lion, for instance. And his family. You need to repay them. Every penny you owe.’
Rossetti stiffens, shocked realisation crawling across his face.
‘You,’ he snarls. ‘You’re making trouble in my town. Trespassing on my business.’
Craig shrugs. ‘Your fault. If you hadn’t sent those chumps to the pub I’d have eaten a quick breakfast and moved on.’
‘This don’t concern you. Why poke around?’
‘Maybe I’m an inquisitive person.’
Rossetti reddens and glances at the window. Craig takes out a switchblade and flicks it open. Liz draws a dull grey revolver, moving back to the shadow of the doorway. Rossetti’s eyes widen. He pulls out a small silver bell and shakes it hard.
‘Anna!’ he calls, bell tinkling.
Hurried footsteps approaching. Owen tenses behind the doorway, slipping a hand into his jacket. Rob shakes his head. ‘Stand down, Corporal.’ Owen nods. Lowers his hand.
The maid pokes her head around the door. Her eyes widen.
‘Call the police,’ Rossetti snarls. ‘I want these intruders arrested.’
‘Go ahead, Anna,’ Craig nods. ‘Make the call.’ She pales, dips a curtsey and vanishes. The faint clank of a handset being picked up next door. The scratchy whirr of a dial, as she tries to make it work.
‘The telephone’s out,’ she calls.
‘Go wait downstairs,’ Craig calls back.
Rossetti shrinks back in his armchair. ‘What d’you want?’
‘I want you to meet your legal obligation.’
‘You aren’t a banker.’
‘So what are you?’
‘Just a guy who wants a cheque,’ Craig straightens up. Leans over. ‘For three hundred pounds.’
Rossetti’s eyes narrow to thin slits. They flicker over Liz’s roughshod clothes, Rob’s ragged beard, the golden stud in Owen’s ear. ‘You represent these…Pikeys?’ He starts to rise.
Craig shoves him back into his chair, hard enough to hurt.
‘Sit still,’ he growls.
‘Why’re you doing this?’
‘Because I’m a compassionate guy,’ Craig shrugs. ‘That’s why. There’s a family in deep trouble here. They’re going to be upset and worried all winter long. Disaster staring them in the face. Never knowing which day’s going to bring everything crashing down around them. I don’t like to see people living that way, whoever they are. They need help.’
Rossetti’s lip curls. ‘If they don’t like it, they should crawl back to the gutter where they belong.’
Craig glances at him, surprised. ‘I’m not talking about them,’ he frowns. ‘I’m talking about you. Your wife ‘n’ kids.’
Craig nods. ‘I stay mad at you, they’ll all suffer. A mugging here, a break-in there. You might fall down the stairs, break your leg. Or your wife might, when she next visits. This house might catch on fire. Who knows. Lots of accidents, one after the other. You’ll never know when the next one’s coming. It’ll drive you crazy.’
Rossetti pales. ‘You couldn’t get away with it. You can’t.’
‘I’m getting away with it right now. I could start today. With you.’
Rossetti says nothing. Craig glances at the crucifix. ‘You read the Bible, Mr Rossetti? Go to church?’
Rossetti juts his chin out proudly. ‘Every Sunday Mass.’
Craig looms over him. ‘Just curious. I’m here to help the weak, and you tried to have me beaten up. Not very Christian of you, is it?’ He smirks. ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself, defend the poor and needy…recognise any of that?’
Rossetti’s silence is answer enough.
‘Give me that decanter,’ Craig orders, in his best Sergeant growl.
Rossetti hesitates. Then he picks it up and holds it out tight-lipped, like he’s in an army lineup and a senior officer had screamed at him. Craig takes it. Fancy crystal with a cut-glass pattern and a fluted stem. Maybe imported all the way from Venice, probably cost fifty quid all by itself. Sloshing half-full with dark amber liquid. He sniffs. Brandy. Then he tosses it out the window. Sparkling liquid arcs through the night air and a second later there’s a loud smash from the cobbles below.
‘Oops,’ Craig grins at the others. Liz and Rob smirk back. Owen chuckles. Rossetti squirms.
‘…You all right up there, Sarge?’ Polly calls from outside.
‘Just house-cleaning,’ Liz calls back.
‘I’ll have you arrested,’ Rossetti snarls. ‘That’s criminal damages.’
‘Sure thing,’ Craig shrugs. ‘Call the police on us. Go on. Try it. Oh wait.’
Rossetti says nothing. Just glares up at him in outraged hatred.
‘Maybe I’ll start with one of your sons,’ Craig continues. ‘Throw him off the balcony, just like that. Or maybe one of your goons. You got any more with you, apart from those five chumps back in The Queen’s Head unconscious on the floor with broken bones?’
Craig smiles. ‘I didn’t think so.’
‘I’ll have you thrown into Pentonville,’ Rossetti rasps. ‘You’ll hang before Mass.’
‘Why? According to you, what the legal system says doesn’t matter. Or does that only apply to you? Maybe you think you’re something special.’
Rossetti says nothing. Craig stands up, picks up his wooden chair and hurls it over the balcony. It crashes and splinters on the cobbles far below. The carthorse whinnies. A dog barks, the next street over.
‘…You sure you’re okay?’ A note of trepidation in Max’s rumbling voice.
Craig keeps his eyes fixed on Rossetti. ‘All fine here,’ he calls back.
Rossetti’s eyes dart to the window. Two floors up. Useless. To the door, Owen skulking behind it. No escape that way.
‘Give me the cheque,’ Craig murmurs. ‘You can afford it. You’re a rich man. You just finished telling me that. Plus the hospital bill for your five guys. You can afford all that, right?’ He keeps his voice low, and calm, and casual. Some officers he’d known had barked and yelled and shouted. Far more effective to speak low and quiet, enunciating clearly and precisely as if to an idiot child, bearing down with an icy stare. That way he’d found the implied menace to be unmistakable. Calm patient voice, huge threatening physique. The dissonance was striking. Whatever worked. It had worked then, and it’s working now. Rossetti is swallowing hard and blinking and squirming back in his armchair.
‘It’s a matter of principle,’ he gulps. ‘They’re paying what they owe.’
‘And you don’t. Why? They were here first.’
‘They got the short straw. They lost out. To us.’
‘And now you’re losing. To me. What goes around, comes around.’
Craig picks up the fine silver bell from the table. Probably a French antique. The silver cup is engraved with delicate filigree patterns. He curls his fist around it. Squeezes hard and crushes it out of shape. Leans over and drops the crumpled mess into Rossetti’s lap.
‘I could do that to your head.’
Rossetti stares up at him, wide-eyed with horror.
‘Give me the cheque,’ Craig repeats softly. ‘Before I lose my fuckin’ temper.’
Rossetti says nothing. Five seconds. Ten. Then his shoulders slump in defeat and he sighs. ‘Okay.’ He bends down and opens a drawer, Craig close behind him. Just in case of hidden revolvers coming out.
‘Make it out to cash,’ he orders. ‘Five hundred pounds. Three for what you owe the family, one for sending guys after me, and another hundred on top. Because you’re a rich idiot and a prat who’s annoying me.’
Liz chuckles. Owen smirks. Rossetti hesitates.
Rossetti’s pen scratches loudly in the stillness. The right date, the right amount, a curly scribbled signature beneath. Five hundred pounds, signed and sealed. Craig folds it and tucks it safely away. ‘This better not bounce.’
Rossetti shrivels back, sweating and trembling. ‘It won’t,’ he mumbles.
‘If it does, you do too. Right off the pavement.’
‘I hope you rot in hell.’
Owen throws a lazy salute. Liz blows him a kiss. ‘Have a lovely evening,’ Rob grins. They leave Rossetti slumped in his armchair, shrunken and defeated. Go back downstairs to the grandfather clock. Craig tilts it forward until it teeters and overbalances. It topples like a mighty oak and smashes hard on the polished marble floor.
And stops ticking.
Blimey, who could have anticipated that. Sergeant, why are you so clumsy, what a shame how the priceless antique is completely wrecked.
Liz’s husky giggle is a wonderful sound. Rob claps him on the back.
Thank you and good night. I’m here all week.
The carthorse nickers at the pavement. Max puffing on his pipe, Polly keeping a sharp eye on the surrounding gloom. Craig climbs up. Breathes out. Liz slings an arm around his shoulders.
‘Where to?’ she asks.
‘Home,’ he smiles.
© 2017 Tom Burton
Huge thank you to everyone who’s enjoying my main story so far and for leaving such encouraging feedback! Brand new short story on the way this Friday! Hope you enjoy it 😀