Sometimes I find it easier to concentrate in a small crowd. Like today. In the Vic on a late Sunday afternoon when I can hear the thick distant crack of willow from a twenty-twenty game on the sports bar TV, the solid drop of snooker balls into pockets in the back room, and the idle chatter of men playing cribbage as they do their best to ward off Monday and its honking horns and barking bosses and drudging duties -- the noises mingling together into a soft constant buzzing, and my mind clearing of all else but the notes resting on top of True Crime between my glass and a bowl of roasted peanuts.
I picked out a nut and chewed on it before washing it down with a slug of beer — all the time looking across the table at him. He’d called me out of the blue and told me I could be on a nice little earner.
Which had intrigued me, even though I wasn’t on anyone’s “A” list, and certainly not on Joe’s.
‘Why me?’ I said.
‘Because...’ he opened his arms as if embracing the whole room, ‘you’re one of us.’ He nodded his head. ‘Someone I can trust.’
Trust is outdated, ask my bank. More likely because my dog-eared card — with my mobile number — was still tacked to the pin board under a sepia picture of the Queen’s coronation on 2nd June 1953. Exactly 20 years later my mother died giving me birth and my father abandoned me. And my life hadn’t got much better, since. So I didn’t believe a word of what Joe had to offer. It could only lead to trouble.
‘I’m an economic casualty,’ I said, as way of slipping out of this conversation. ‘The bank owns Christopher Justice.’
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘don’t matter; it’s your know-how I need.’ He brought his fist down hard on the metal frame of his wheelchair, which felled his crutch. ‘Fucking justice.’
I sighed, and signalled to Reggie behind the bar. Two fingers held up and a nod of my head when he grudgingly acknowledged my presence. My concentration broken, I peered down at my notes which contained a copy of Joe’s police report.
‘It says here, that your injuries were self-inflicted--’ Joe snorted-- ‘after a witnessed session of hard-drinking vodka shots that culminated in loss of consciousness in the alley behind the Docks when your bike wrecked a concrete post.’
He shook his head. ‘Not true. I was set up.’ Joe leant forward, hissed venom. ‘When I woke up in Whipps Cross my fucking right leg was gone.’
I riffled through my notes to the hospital diagnosis. They referred to Joe’s disabling diabetes. Emergency amputation below the knee was performed to prevent blah, blah, gangrene. Yet something still bothered me.
‘Set up for what, Joe?’
The question hung in the air for a moment, which was time enough for Reggie to gate-crash our space with a couple of pig swills -- and my bar-tab, which meant I had to work the evening shift for the next week to make a dent in it.
Unless Joe Silver lived up to his name.
Joe lowered his voice. ‘You know the Grey Brothers,’ he said, after Reggie had made his way over to the card school, ‘business is business, and I got in their way once too often.’
The Grey Brothers. Nasty pieces of work — Barrie, the enticer and Bernie, the enforcer. I jotted down that “set up” meant “swatting an irritating bluebottle” in Joe’s language, but it intrigued me.
‘What do you think happened?’
A red flush invaded Joe’s neck. ‘It’s not what I think, it’s what I know,’ he said. ‘My vodka was spiked -- then my accident was faked.’ He picked up his glass and gulped down a few mouthfuls, before continuing. ‘They left me to rot in the alley until the milkman found me at dawn and called out the paramedics.’
I jotted down “witnesses” with a few question marks. ‘Let’s go back a few stages. Where did all this happen?’
Joe looked at the ceiling that needed a fresh coat of paint, as if recollecting a scene he didn’t want to revisit. ‘Word got out that the Greys were throwing a bonus freebie at their local dive. I was requested to attend.’
‘Like the Royal Command.’ Joe was trying to read my scribbles which contained several question marks. ‘And I had no idea I was walking into a set up until they showed me the figures. By that time I’d downed half a bottle of Grey Goose. And, as it was explained to me, my bonus payout was letting me live.’
The clock above the bar ticked towards half-past four, and even the longest serving stalwarts had packed up and left. Going home to a charcoal dinner and an irate missus -- neither of which I had, unless a bowl of roasted peanuts and Reggie sufficed.
I sighed. Tea-time at the cricket match, the snooker cues were back in their rack, and card school had disbanded. I shuffled my notes together in the hope I’d get a couple of hours rest before opening time. Not that Reggie cared as long as I turned up. I tried to summarise.
‘So you’re saying everything was staged. “Witnesses” gave false testimony, and they crushed your leg. Why?’
Joe winced. ‘To send a message, mate. Don’t cream us.’
And Joe wanted justice? To my way of thinking the Greys had a point, albeit in the biblical sense. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, and all that crap.
‘I need to wrap this up, now,’ I said, ‘I don’t think I can help you.’
‘That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. I never touched a penny of their deals. It was a fucking set up.’
The killer blow. I stopped shuffling my notes. ‘Who by?’
Joe’s mouth opened to show a top row of gleaming teeth that must have cost a fortune. He dug a hand into his pocket and drew out a bundle of banknotes. He tossed them across to me.
‘That’s what I’m paying you to find out.’
I riffled through the bundle. Every note a brand new bullseye. Must have been well over a grand. I was tempted. But delving into the secrets of an underworld occupied by the likes of Joe Silver wasn’t my Garden of Eden. ‘No,’ I said.
He looked shocked, but he was looking behind me. His mouth contorted into a scream. ‘No, no...’
Before I could move a gun blast sent me crashing to the floor.