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Awarded the AIA Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Fiction, and the prestigious B.R.A.G. Medallion, Flank Street is an unforgettable novel from “One of the most distinct and exciting new voices in crime writing.”---When Micky DeWitt sails into Sydney, Australia, his only assets are a run down yacht, his wits, and the skills he’s picked up as a dedicated career criminal.Shiftless, cynical and dishonest, even with himself, Micky takes a job as a barman in Sydney's seedy red light district of Kings Cross. He’s a chameleon, seeing himself as both master criminal and chilled-out world sailor. He wants a life on Easy Street, is driven by the desire to ‘get away with it,’ and addicted to the adrenaline rush that comes with that life.Carol Todd is turned on by money and risk-taking. For Carol, there’s no such thing as “enough”. Being an escort to a few wealthy clients is just a means to an end. A couple of underworld connections help, too. But what she needs for her latest con is a fall guy—someone she can use and lose once she’s done with him. And Micky DeWitt looks like the perfect man to fall into her sultry, seductive honey trap.Playing to Micky’s twisted sense of chivalry, Carol leads him into a hedonistic free-fall. As Micky’s life spins out of control it doesn’t take long to graduate from burglary to arson, then accessory to murder. And no matter which way he moves, someone’s going to get hurt… or die.
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Also By A.J. Sendall
About the Author
Yellow streetlights lined Flank Street. I walked in the shadow of the plane trees: Black 501s and a grey hoodie. Outside number 67, I stopped, leaned against a tree, and waited. I craved the caress of nicotine, but the glow would expose me.
No lights in the house, no car in the driveway, no sound; an hour passed, still nothing. An hour and twenty, and a Green Holden Monaro pulled into the drive. He climbed out; I stood still. His face, his name, his height and build I knew. I also knew he’d crossed somebody enough to get whacked, and that was where I came in. Third night of surveillance: same routine, always alone, briefcase in the left hand, keys in the right. Lock the car: check it. Get the mail from the box: straight to the house. The sound of the lock, then a chain.
Cross the road, down the drive, vault the gate into the back yard. Kitchen window: make a noise to draw him close. A face in the window and a spit from the silenced nine—job’s right!
My name’s Micky DeWitt. I arrived in Australia five years ago, broke and scratching for work. Now I have a nice apartment, a fast car, and own a boat repair yard. The yard pays the guys’ wages, but could never keep me the way I like to live. I hang out there because I like being beside the water. I have three workers on the dock and slipway that I pay above award, and a secretary in the office that I screw after hours. I live well, play hard, and call no-one boss.
This is how I got there.
It was November 1990 when I anchored in Sydney Harbour for the first time. I was broke, other than owning the old boat I was sailing. It was home, transport, and escape vehicle rolled into one tired steel shell. I needed money: didn’t want a job, yet hated being skint. I wanted to keep the boat even though they made it hard to live aboard in the harbour. I could hardly afford fuel or food. Something had to change.
Two beers left in the fridge. I opened one and then wrote a for sale sign to pin on the noticeboard at the local shopping area. My cherished bronze sextant had to go: still an old plastic one stowed beneath a bunk that I could use if push came to shove.
With the beer almost finished, I sat in the cockpit looking out across the harbour at the vast city, thinking there must be opportunities for a guy like me. My CV was non-existent, but I had skills that could be useful to the right people. It was just a question of finding them. I needed to pick the brains of a local to find out where casual work of my kind could be found. This was at a time when the internet was in its infancy and Google didn’t exist. Taxi drivers did, though, and they always know. If you want to find out about a place, its people, the no-go zones and the dark side, ask a cab driver.
It was a Friday night. The traffic crossing the bridge was thick and dirty with exhaust gas. After locking up, I rowed ashore in my worn dinghy, tied it to a small dock that had missing planks and looked disused, then walked towards the lights.
I’d always liked walking city streets, feeling the intimacy, the chance contact with strangers. Sydney was a big place, and with no real idea where to go, I headed to where I could see traffic streaming along a main road about two blocks ahead.
No go. Populated by faceless black-suits, it was a business area with only a couple of trendy bars. I’d never done trendy; it wasn’t my style.
Flag a cab: front seat.
‘Where to, mate?’
The friendly and laid-back way of the Aussies I liked already.
‘Where a man can get drunk and laid and still have change from a fifty.’
‘You’ll be wanting The Cross then, mate. Where ya from?’
‘What’s at The Cross?’
He laughed and looked at me sceptically. ‘Never heard of our famous Kings Cross?’
‘No. I just rolled into town.’
‘Just have fun and keep your nose out of anyone else’s business and you’ll do all right.’
‘I’ll drop you at the B & B, that’s the Bourbon & Beefsteak, or just the Bourbon to locals. Walk down one side of the road as far as the Coca-Cola sign and back up the other, and watch your wallet. If you don’t find anything you like, I’ll run you home again for free.’
I took the card he pulled from the centre console and dropped it in my shirt pocket. ‘Thanks. Anything to look out for other than pickpockets?’
‘No, mate; it’s all good.’
He turned at a set of lights and I got my first glimpse of Darlinghurst Road. I knew immediately it was where I needed to be. Strip clubs, dimly lit bars, massage places. The street thronged with walkers, stalkers, hookers, the curious and hopeful, the lost and lonely. I got out and joined them.
It was still happy hour at the Bourbon. I took a table on the veranda and watched the throngs until a perky waitress took my order. Two Jameson on ice and change from a five; I was off to a good start.
There was a half-decent band playing inside and doing the usual pub band covers. I drained one glass and took the other inside to check it out and be closer to the music. There was a big central bar with lots of beer taps and rows of optics. I sat on a stool, back to the bar, and looked around.
There was a small dance floor in front of the cramped stage, but nobody was dancing; it was only seven-thirty. Booths lined the wall I was facing, mostly filled with younger people shouting to be heard above the music. On the back wall, there were a few round wooden tables with hardback chairs flanked by the doors to the toilets.
It was a mixed crowd in there that night, but two people stood out among them. At one of the back tables, there were two guys: one was tall and well dressed, confident, controlled; the other, a Maori or Islander, smart casual and brute force. They had player written all over them and didn’t care who saw it.
I stayed there another half hour, nursing the Jameson and watching. When the bar area became packed, I left to walk the streets.
I’d been in similar areas in London, Hamburg and Rome, but this felt different. There was no heavy atmosphere, no feeling that I had to be ready to fend off. People seemed cool: there to have a good time. It only took fifteen minutes to walk to the end of the street, and less to know this was where I could make some money. The clubs and sex shops thinned out as I approached the intersection and Coca-Cola sign at the end of the road. There were a handful of hookers working the corner and plenty of cars slowing or stopping. I crossed and started walking back towards the Bourbon on the other side. Same layout: bars, clubs, food, and sex, interspersed with tattoo parlours, an all-night chemist and a dry cleaner.
Bouncers stood outside some of the strip joints cajoling the passers-by with promises of naked beauty within. It was all above my budget and titty-bars didn’t hold much appeal.
The blues were flowing out of a bar, so I stepped inside. It was dimly lit and smoky as hell. The music was from a CD, the sound system awesome. I looked in my wallet, fronted the bar, and ordered a beer.
The crowd was mainly young. There were a couple of well-inked thugs at the far end, and two young girls dressed to work the street were perched on stools in the middle. Nobody paid me any attention as I looked around. After a few minutes, I turned and faced the bar, and then noticed the sign above a row of optics, ‘Bartender wanted’, followed by a phone number.
When the barman came close, I asked him for a pen. He looked at me for a few seconds before fishing around in a drawer beneath the bar. He came up with a well-chewed Bic and tossed it on the bar. I wrote the number on a beer mat and pushed it into a pocket. The barman was hovering, so I tossed the pen back on the bar, nodded, and found a table. I liked the place already.
Next morning I called the number. Twice it went to an answering machine, the third time I got a human.
‘Hi, I’m calling about the bartender job at Frankie’s.’
There was a short pause, and then a gruff voice said, ‘What’s your name?’
‘DeWitt. Micky DeWitt’
‘Have you done it before?’
‘Are you a pisshead, Micky DeWitt?’
My finger hovered over the cradle, ready to disconnect, but instead I said, ‘No. I like a drink, but nothing—’
‘Be there tonight at nine. Ask for Lenny.’
The phone abruptly cut off. I thought, fuck it, I’m not working for a rude arsehole like that. Curiosity and poverty got the better of me.
That night I walked into Frankie’s at quarter to nine. The same sour-faced barman was there. I guessed it was his job going for grabs. Despite the grouch behind the bar and the rude bastard on the phone, I still liked the place. It had a vibe, an atmosphere that resonated with me. It wasn’t sleazy, but had an edge: something rude and from the night.
‘Jameson on ice, and where do I find Lenny?’ He remembered me from the previous night: knew I was out for his job. He laid a short measure on me and nodded towards the corner.
I stayed at the bar for a couple of minutes, watching the man called Lenny. He was in his thirties, sitting at a table with a woman about the same age. Maybe his missus, but she looked like a tramp: a bleached blonde, pink lipstick on a well-creased face. I decided to wait until exactly nine o’clock and give her a chance to leave. She didn’t. I walked over.
‘DeWitt?’ he asked before I had a chance to say anything.
‘Yes. Micky DeWitt.’
‘Go on, piss off,’ he said, looking at the woman.
She crushed her cigarette into the glass ashtray, stood and moved to his side, leaned over and kissed his temple, all the while looking at me. She straightened, adjusted her boobs, and then after looking for another few seconds, turned and left.
When he told me to sit, I did.
‘What experience have you got?’
‘I’ve worked a few bars, mainly in London and Hamburg: managed one in New Zealand for a while. I haven’t been in Australia very long.’
‘A few days.’
‘No, no. I’ve got a Kiwi passport, so I’m good to work here.’
‘You didn’t say you were a fucking Kiwi.’
‘I’m not. I’m from England. I just lived in New Zealand a while and took citizenship.’
He looked at me sideways, suspicious that I might be an undercover Kiwi. ‘I pay ten bucks an hour and you pay for any breakages. Okay?’
‘Sounds fair enough.’
‘It is. You start tomorrow night, eight o’clock.’
‘Great. Thanks, Lenny.’
‘No being late, no getting pissed, and no selling drugs.’
I watched him to see if he was joking. He wasn’t.
‘Sure. No problem,’ I said, then stood and held out a hand that he shook briefly. I winked at the barman as I walked to the door. He nodded and flicked me a middle finger.
That was it. I had a job. More than that, I had the opportunity.
The following day I spent some of my remaining cash making myself look less like a bum. Everything I had looked as if it had crossed an ocean, which it had. With black 501s, an Oxford blue button-down shirt, a pair of Timberlands and a twenty-dollar haircut, I looked sharp.
That first night, I arrived a quarter to eight. No sign of the greaseball behind the bar. I didn’t wait to be told or invited. I went straight to the end of the bar where the gate was, collecting a handful of empties on the way, threw up the flap, and stepped into my bar.
‘Who the fuck’re you?’
I looked behind and down, where the voice came from. ‘It’s me, Lenny. Micky. You told me to start tonight at eight.’ He was on his knees pushing something heavy under the sink. ‘Need a hand with that.’
‘No. And it’s not eight yet.’
He stood and rubbed his hair back with his right hand.
I was about to put my hand out, then remembered he wasn’t a handshake kind of guy. I looked around the behind-bar area, taking stock. ‘Anything I need to know? Any dos and don’ts?’
He continued to look at me for a few seconds and then relaxed a little. He turned and took a ring of keys from a hook beside him and handed them to me.
‘You’ll need these to lock up tonight and to open in the morning. Ten o’clock start for eleven o’clock opening. Mandy, the cleaner, will be here at ten. She’ll tell you where everything is. There’s a list of phone numbers on that board.’ He nodded towards the door.
‘There’s a barmaid named Stella. She’ll be here at eleven. Never late and works well, but not too bright. Seven o’clock, she’s relieved by Meagan. She’s often late as she is tonight, and which is why I’m behind the bloody bar again. I should bloody sack her.’
‘Why don’t you?’
He threw an angry look at me and then shook it off. ‘Wait till you see her. She draws in plenty of custom just by leaning over the bar. And talk of the bloody devil,’ he said, raising his voice a notch and looking past me towards the sound of hurried footsteps.
‘Sorry, Lenny. I got stuck in—’
‘No worries, darling, but get your arse behind that bar before I bloody well sack it.’
I didn’t know how serious he was, and neither did Meagan from the look on her face. As soon as I saw her, I understood what Lenny had meant about drawing customers: tight-fit jeans on long, shapely legs, and a low-cut top barely containing her tits. She looked briefly at me, pushing a half-smile into shiny red lips, and then pushed past us both on her way to the bar door. I turned back to Lenny, who was watching me watching her.
‘Cellar’s this way.’ He turned and walked. I followed.
We looked in the cellar. All standard equipment I’d used before: well stocked, well laid out, and clean. My opinion of Lenny was rising. For all his gruffness and the tough-guy act, he seemed well organised and business-like.
‘The safe is in here.’ He passed through a small door into a side room off the main cellar. ‘Two a.m. close. Empty the tills, count it twice, write it on this sheet, and then lock it in here.’ He handed me a sheet as an example: standard reconciliation. ‘Can you remember numbers?’
‘Sure,’ I said, handing him back the sheet. He told me the codes, and then had me repeat them twice. He seemed satisfied that I had a grip on things, and we headed back up to the bar.
Meagan was working the far end. She was fast, confident, and great with customers. When she’d finished serving, Lenny called her over.
‘This is Micky; he’s the new bar manager.’
The word manager caught me by surprise, but I tried not to show it. Lenny didn’t know me from the next vagrant, yet there he was putting me in charge of his bar – at ten bucks an hour.
Meagan leaned an elbow on the polished mahogany bar, crossed her ankles and looked me up and down. ‘What happened to Wayne?’ she asked Lenny, still looking at me.
‘Wayne’s gone. Wayne was a lazy... Wayne was an unreliable, dishonest prick.’
She shrugged and turned away.
‘Okay, Micky, any problems?’
‘No: good as gold, Lenny. I’ll just have a look around and get familiar.’
‘Just don’t get too familiar with her,’ he said, nodding towards Meagan, who was chatting with a young woman sitting at the bar.
Lenny walked through the bar gate and sat at the same table where I’d met him the previous night. The same slapper was there waiting for him. Same pale pink lipstick, same tight top showing her wrinkled midriff finished in solarium orange.
I looked through the bar, making a mental note of where things were, and then had another look in the cellar. When I returned to the bar, Lenny and the woman had gone. I served a couple, then collected empties from the tables and put them in the washer. Meagan seemed to be ignoring me. I decided to brace her right away. This was my bar; she was my barmaid.
‘Was Wayne a friend of yours?’
She gave me the same appraising look as before. ‘What’s it to you?’
I was struck by the contrast of the killer body and the ordinary face. ‘Nothing. What’s the attitude about?’
She held my gaze for a five-beat, then moved her eyes away and said, ‘He should have made me manager. I’ve been here the longest: much longer than Stella and Joy.’
‘A sort of temp,’ she said sulkily.
‘There are two reasons he didn’t make you manager, Meagan. First, you’re always late getting here. Second, you’re a good barmaid, and great with the customers. I’ve only been here an hour and I can see that. He wants you here, in the bar, not pissing around with orders, deliveries, and doing cellar work. Manager is just a name for gofer. And I bet he pays you more than he does me.’
She gazed at me warily, and her face gradually softened. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, not quite ugly, but could never be described as pretty or even good-looking; plain, I suppose you’d call her.
She took two shot glasses from a shelf, one in each hand, pushed them against two optics, and then handed me one.
I had no problem responding to that invite. We tossed the shots back. ‘How long have you worked here?’
‘About two years. I only took it on for a month, but then sort of stayed.’
‘You can’t hate it that much then.’
‘It’s okay. Lenny’s not bad compared with many of the people around here. Bloody tight-arse though.’
‘Was that his missus he was with?’
She laughed, and when she did, her face brightened and lost some of its starkness. ‘She’s anyone’s missus.’
I wasn’t about to start a gossip mill or talk about Lenny behind his back, so left it at that. For all I knew, Meagan could have been tight with him.
‘Customers,’ I said, nodding to the far end of the bar. She pulled her shoulders back, turned, and went to work.
We chatted a little that night when the crowd had thinned after midnight. She seemed to be honest in that simple kind of way. I wouldn’t use the term innocent, but there was a naivety about her that was incongruous with working in a bar in a red-light district, albeit a relatively safe one like Kings Cross.
I was enjoying myself. The bar was easy to work; there was a great selection of music to choose from, and the custom had been good. No troublemakers or derelict pissheads as I’d expected there. Meagan had been good too. She was a great barmaid, no doubt. She worked the bar with a fluid efficiency that made me feel slow and clumsy.
By quarter-to-two, the place was empty. I told Meagan she should go, and then started to cash up the tills. When I looked round, she was sitting on the public side of the bar, watching me.
‘Something I can get you, lady?’
‘Same again, Sam.’
I poured two shots and laid them on the bar in front of her as she lit a cigarette.
‘You want one?’ she asked, offering the open pack. I slid one out and leaned forward to light it on the flame of the silver Tommy lighter she held in her slim, pale fingers.
She snapped it closed, laid it on the pack of Camels, held one of the shot glasses head-high in salute, and waited for me to follow.
I touched my glass against hers ‘The first shift,’ I said. Her only response was to slam the vodka down, and then bang the empty glass on the bar. I followed and poured two more.
We smoked and talked a while. Just superficial getting-to-know-you stuff. At five past two she slid off the stool and locked the front door, then collected her bag and jacket and left with a cheery, ‘See ya tonight.’
‘Don’t be late,’ I called after her, but she was already out on the street. I sat looking around my new domain, in no real hurry to leave.
After working for Lenny for a month, he upped my pay to fifteen an hour. He was seldom at the bar after the first week. I guess he was happy with how I was handling things, could see that I was in control, and left me to it. I had no idea what else he did; we didn’t discuss personal things. He never asked me anything about my private life and kept strictly to business. He would usually be with one of two women. Pinklips would often be trailing him, tired grey eyes peering at the world from her prematurely lined face. Haggard is how I would describe her, as if she’d spent much of her adult life smoking, drinking and hanging around in bars waiting for variants of Lenny. She never spoke to Meagan or me, and was never there during the early shift when Stella was working. The other woman was quite attractive, almost refined-looking, with alabaster skin and well-groomed, shoulder-length hair cut in a bob. She wore elegant clothes, as opposed to Pinklips’ cheap polyester dresses and worn-out sandals. I never heard Lenny address Pinklips by name, but the other woman he called Heather. She was quiet, and other than a polite hello, we never spoke. I wondered if Heather was his wife, but when I asked Meagan, she just laughed and shook her head as if I’d said something stupid again.
I’d taken to staying in one of the rooms above the bar during the week. In the past, they’d been rented out as short-term accommodation, but now lay unused. When I asked Lenny if it was okay, if he wanted rent, he muttered something like ‘’course you fucking can’, and walked away. I was getting used to his ways and felt that beneath his phony facade, he wasn’t so different to any other Joe.
Stella, as Lenny had said, was always on time, worked well, and needed no supervision. I would often leave her to run the bar herself when it wasn’t busy, giving me time to do ordering and stocking.
Mandy, the cleaner, was a powerhouse. She was in her forties, always arrived early, and often caught me still having breakfast. She went through the place like a whirlwind, with mops, brooms, and cleaners. She always did the mahogany bar last, and left it streak-free and laid with fresh beer-mats. Lenny had picked and retained good staff.
Meagan and I were getting on well. The smokes and drinks after hours were now a mandatory part of the night shift. She was opening up about her life, which was being made unnecessarily difficult by an angry ex who figured he could still control her. When she told me how he had been bashing on her door at four in the morning, I asked, ‘You want me to kill him?’
She considered it long enough for me to realise she thought I was serious, then blew out a steady stream of smoke and said, ‘Would you do that for me, Micky?’
Caught a little off-guard, I parried. ‘Just for the hell that’s in it.’
I saw her deflate, and then thought, why not? She seemed afraid of him, and she wasn’t the timid sort. Men who bully or hurt women had always been my pet hate, so why not get rid of him?
The thought played around my mind as we sat at the bar. It was after three and she seemed reluctant to go.
‘Do you want to stay here and then go home in the morning?’
She looked down at the glass in her fingers as she spun the vodka round. ‘No strings?’
‘There’s another spare room. You’ll just need to make the bed up: plenty of linen up there, but no strings.’
She slammed the vodka back. ‘And you won’t tell Lenny?’
‘Shit, no. Anyway, this is my bar now. Fuck Lenny. Fuck him in the ear.’
‘Thanks, Micky,’ she said, raising her eyes to meet mine.
‘No worries, mate. Come on, I’ll show you where the linen cupboard is.’
She followed me up the stairs. When we reached the hallway, she said in a whisper, ‘I’ve never been up here before.’
‘Never? What? In all the time you’ve been here?’
‘No. Why would I?’ Still whispering.
I opened the door to the spare room, switched on the light, and then stood back to let her walk in. ‘There’s bedding in that cupboard down the hall. Shower’s opposite. Toilet’s at the far end.’
She immediately walked across the room and looked out the windows as if she expected to find somebody looking back up at her. The brass curtain rings squealed as she pulled the heavy drapes closed.
‘Anything you need?
‘Only if you’ve got a toothbrush and spare panties?’
She wore a coy look as she said, ‘Thanks again, Micky.’
‘Any time.’ I closed the door and went to my own room.
It was strange but somehow comforting, hearing her move around on the other side of the connecting door.
I lay thinking about if I could kill in cold blood.
Three months had passed since I first walked into Frankie’s. I was spending less and less time on my boat, and when I was there, I was restless for the city, for The Cross.
I’d managed to stash away a fair amount of cash, as well as living tolerably well. Meagan had become a good friend, and occasionally we would sack together. Stella had noticed Meagan hanging around in the mornings, but other than an enquiring look, she hadn’t asked. It was nothing to do with her anyway.
Even though I was doing okay working this way, it was not what I had in mind for the future. It was easy, fun even, some nights, but it was only a means to an end. Lenny was happy. The bottom line was slowly rising, and he only had to spend a few hours each week taking cash to the bank and making up the wages. I noticed he also paid two suppliers with cash as well, probably for stolen liquor.
I’d come to know a few of the regulars after the first month or so. Amongst them were a few villainous types. The flash clothes and fat rolls of cash gave them away.
There was one man named Ray who always came in between nine and ten on a Friday night. I noticed a few of the other criminal types treated him deferentially, and so figured he must have been a heavyweight. He was a tough-looking guy: barrel chest, jutting jaw, and a look of imminent hostility. I don’t remember him ever buying a drink. He would often be with a thickset Islander who seemed to be some kind of Man Friday.
One Saturday night there were a half-dozen of them: Ray, the Islander, three others—all tough looking—including another Islander. There was also this tall guy wearing a sharp suit and an air of authority.
‘Who’s the big guy with Ray?’ I asked Meagan as we stood behind the bar waiting for the next onslaught.
‘You have to learn to mind your own bloody business.’
‘So he’s a scary dude. Ray seems to be number two tonight. I bet he doesn’t like that.’
‘Leave it alone, Micky.’ She turned and started stacking glasses on a shelf, clearly uncomfortable. I wondered if this had anything to do with her ex, but decided to let it slide.
Half an hour later, Lenny and Pinklips arrived. She sat at their usual table; he went over and greeted the tall man. Lenny was meek and overly pleased to see them. It came over as a royal arse-lick. The tall guy said a few words to him, then returned to his conversation. Lenny hovered a while, then got the message and left them. They stayed for a couple of hours, then drifted away in ones and twos. Ray and the tall guy were first to leave. Lenny tried to catch their attention as they left, but they either didn’t see him or chose to ignore him.
The bar emptied out early for a Saturday. By midnight there were just a few diehards, two at the bar trying to hit up on Meagan, and three older guys sitting at a table. She looked uncomfortable and kept her distance when she could. I signalled her to swap with me. She was hesitant, so I signalled again with more force. We swapped places, and I started restocking a cold-shelf close to them.
One of them stood on the rail, leaned over the bar, and said, ‘Why don’t you fuck off back to the other end and let that big-titted bitch serve us.’
I smiled at him, grabbed his hair, and slammed his head into the top of the bar. The other one went to make a move, but stopped when he saw Meagan with a baseball bat in her hands, ready to swing. The three old timers had paused and were watching events unfold. I still had hold of his hair and gave his face another dance on the bar. He slumped back, dazed, barely conscious.
His mate glanced at Meagan, then looked back at me and pointed a finger. ‘You’re a fucking dead man. And you, bitch,’ he said, turning to look at Meagan, ‘have got it coming.’
‘Get out and fucking stay out. I see you come through that door again, I’ll set her on you,’ I said, nodding at Meagan who still held the bat in a two-handed, white-knuckle grip at shoulder height. They made it to the door, hurling insults and threats.
‘Shit, Meagan, you’re a scary woman,’ I said, twisting the bat free from her grip. ‘Do you know them?’
‘I’ll take that as a yes. Who are they?’
With trembling fingers, she reached out and slid a Camel from the pack, fumbled trying to ignite the Tommy lighter, and then finally took a deep draw. She still didn’t say anything, but I knew her well enough to know it was personal.
‘Was that the ex?’
She was still looking down. She’d her left arm wrapped round her middle, her right elbow resting on it as she punished the cigarette. After a few seconds, she nodded.
‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’
‘Why didn’t you just leave it?’
‘I’m not a leave it kind of guy. Why did you immediately back me up with the bat? It’s okay, you don’t have to answer that; it was rhetorical. You did it because that’s what we do— back each other. You know any bar or club in this area has the potential to get violent. If it happens—’
‘Okay, all right. I get it.’
‘Go and chill out upstairs. I’ll finish down here.’ Before she could answer, one of the old guys approached the bar carrying three empty glasses. They were the last customers and I hoped they were leaving. He laid the glasses on the bar and waited to be served.
‘And three Drambuies.’
As I made up his order, I heard the door swing and then the sound of Meagan climbing the wooden stairs. The old guy was watching me. I laid the Drambuies on the bar and started pouring beers.
‘You want to be careful with that prick,’ he said casually. ‘He’s in with Kurt Reed.’
‘Who’s Kurt Reed?’
‘You know who Loretto Reed is?’ he asked with an amused sniff.
He looked at me with a mix of surprise and pity, as if he’d discovered a new breed of idiot. He picked up the three shot glasses, carried them to his table, and then returned for the beers.
‘Loretto Reed is a mindless thug. Kurt Reed is even worse. They run a couple of low-end clubs—not here in The Cross, this is Johno’s turf—but out west where it’s full of bloody immigrants.’
‘Thanks, and these are on the house.’ I laid the third beer on the bar. He looked at me for several seconds, evaluating me, deciding if he should say more. Eventually he did.
‘You’re new around here, so let me give you some advice. Johno Brookes runs most things worth running in these parts. He doesn’t like trouble. He likes people to feel safe in The Cross so that they come and spend their cash in his clubs and bars. Those wankers that you tuned up work for the Reed brothers, and if Kurt Reed hears about what went on here tonight, he’ll be pissed off and want to come back and tear the place apart. If I were you, I’d get your version of events to him before they do. That way he’ll be pissed with them instead of you. He won’t want to start trouble with Johno Brookes, but—’
‘You know how I can get in touch with him?’
He laughed derisively and then said, ‘Have a talk with Lenny.’
He returned to his table and a few seconds later there was an outburst of laughter, no doubt at my expense. I was grateful to the old man for trying to warn me, and the information would be useful.
The three old men left at one-fifteen. I locked the door, flicked off the room lights, emptied the tills, and headed upstairs. Meagan was waiting in the lounge. I decided to wait until she had time to calm down before asking questions about her ex and the Reeds. Morning would be soon enough.
‘I should have told you,’ she said when I sat opposite her.
‘Told me what?’
‘That he works for the Reeds. I heard the old guy tell you about them.’
‘I came down to see if everything was okay, and saw you talking to him. He’s right; you need to tell Lenny tonight. If Kurt Reed hears that you worked over one of his guys, he’ll come looking for you. He’s a violent bastard. So is his brother, Loretto.’
‘I might have to get you on that bat again.’
‘Don’t joke. This could go badly. Call Lenny.’
‘What’s his name, your ex?’
She hesitated, but knew there was no choice. ‘They call him Fish.’
‘That’s what they call him. He’d never tell me why.’
‘How did you get mixed up with a misogynist halfwit called Fish?’
‘It’s a long story.’
‘It always is, but I’ve got all night.’
‘Call Lenny,’ she said, folding her arms and crossing her legs.
‘And then you’ll tell me?’
‘Struth, don’t you ever give up?’ Her fear was evaporating; a half-smile bowed her mouth.
I went down to the bar, dialled Lenny’s number, and waited. His phone only rang twice before pickup.
‘Hello,’ came a sleepy female voice.
‘I need to speak with Lenny. Tell him it’s Micky DeWitt.’
There were more voices in the background, then Lenny’s on the line.
‘There was a rowdy customer tonight. He works for Kurt Reed.’
‘And I had to hit his head on the bar a couple of times.’
‘Oh, fuckin’ hell, Micky. Why’d you do that?’
‘’Cos he needed it. He goes by the name of Fish. He’s Meagan’s ex.’
‘He’s a cunt, but you shouldn’t have hit him. Anyone else with him?’
‘Just one other guy about the same age. There were three regulars in the bar; you know the three old guys who always come in together. One of them gave me the heads-up that this Fish worked for Reed.’
‘Did you get his name?’
‘No, he’s just one of those old guys—’
‘Not him, Micky: the fucker with Fish.’
‘Chips? I don’t know, Lenny. We didn’t exactly buddy up afterwards and I don’t want to drill Meagan about it.’
‘Oh? I heard you were drilling her twice a week now.’
‘So can you sort it?’
‘I’ll see what I can do.’
The line went dead. I hung up, grabbed a bottle of vodka, two shot glasses, and went back upstairs.
‘Lenny’s cool: says he’s going to sort it.’
‘Is that all he said?’
‘Tell me about these two sets of crims: the Reeds and Johno Brookes.’
‘Do we have to do this, Micky?’
‘We seriously pissed off Fish and his mate—’
‘We? What do you mean, we? I didn’t smack the bar with his face.’
‘Someone needed to and I was closest, that’s all. Now tell me about Kurt Reed. What do you know about him?’ I poured shots and handed her one. She slammed it in one hit. I followed and poured again.
‘Shit!’ She shuddered as the second shot hit her stomach. ‘Okay.’ She paused and lit up. ‘There are three of them.’ She dragged hard. ‘Kurt, Loretto, and I think the other one is Martin, but I’ve never seen him. Just heard his name mentioned. They run clubs and drugs out west—’
‘Where out west?’
‘I don’t know—just past West Bumfuck. I don’t know where they are, Micky. Just out west is all I know.’
‘You never went out there with him?’
‘No way; I wasn’t with him that long. It just seemed like forever. It’s hard to explain simply. There are three... gangs, I guess you’d call them. There are the Reeds, who are small-time.’ She flicked ash, exhaled smoke through her nose. ‘Do you remember a few days ago, there was a big, well dressed guy in here with Ray-who-looks-like-a-bulldog?’
‘Sure. He seemed to be Mr Big of that mob.’
‘He is. That’s Gary Mitchell, Ray’s boss, and a kind of freelancer, from what I know. He’s like Mr Logistics for shady underworld types. He’s often around the clubs, and I’ve seen him with Brookes a few times in places like Ronnie’s, which is where a lot of the heavyweights hang out.’
‘So does he work for Brookes?’
‘I dunno. He’s got his own guys, like Ray and those two Islander boys, so I guess he’s like a contractor.’
She crushed the butt of the Camel. ‘The King. He owns or controls lots of the clubs and bars, probably including this one. The drug distribution is his too. He controls heaps of bent coppers, cabbies, hookers, slots. You name something around here that turns a buck and his hand is on it.’
I poured two more shots, slid one across to her, and tossed mine down. She followed, shuddered, and lit another smoke.
‘The Cross is full of stories about him, and what he’s done or had done, most of it bullshit... probably.’
‘How do we find out if he owns this place?’
‘Don’t go asking questions that’ll get you compacted. Leave it alone.’
‘Sure,’ I said.
The look in her eyes said bloody liar.
‘Why do you think Ray comes in every week for a few hours?’
She sighed heavily. ‘Maybe he’s thirsty.’
‘Maybe he’s collecting?’
‘You’ve been watching too many movies.’ She tucked her legs up on the sofa. ‘Look, I’ll tell you this just so your curiosity’s satisfied, and then leave it alone. Okay?’
I gave her a broad smile, sat beside her, pulled her right foot onto my lap, and started massaging the story out of her.
She gave me a sardonic forced grin. ‘Lenny only owns this place on paper. He’s a clean front for Brookes. Although Brookes controls lots of clubs, he only legally owns a few of them. He’ll buy a place, or take it as payment for a debt, then put a Lenny in as front man.’ She stopped and looked at me to make sure I was following.
I was way ahead.
‘Once a week, Ray comes in to collect. Sometimes Sonny comes for him, but Ray likes to be hands-on.’
‘I bet he does. Who does the handover?’
‘Usually me. Lenny’ll do it if he wants to talk with Ray.’
I wondered why I’d never seen it. I guessed I hadn’t been looking. I swapped feet and asked, ‘Who’s Pinklips? Is she part of it?’
‘She’s new. She only came on the scene about the same time as you did. I guess he’s just fucking her. Poor choice, though.’ She laid back, put a pillow under her head, and waggled her toes for more. ‘He had this good-looking woman before; classy sort of escort, I think she was. God knows why he swapped her for that slapper.’
‘Men are fickle creatures.’
‘Most are fickle arseholes.’
‘Unless they give great foot massages, right?’
‘Hmm, keep going; I’ll let you know.’
I did, and so did she.
Lenny called the following morning. He said he’d sorted it, at least as far as the bar was concerned. Neither Fish nor Kurt Reed would come and make trouble there, but I was to watch my back on the street. It was a fair warning, and one I took seriously.
Stella came in at eleven. When she was set up, I left and took a cab to the boat. The air inside was musty. It was weeks since I’d been there and I felt guilty for letting her get that way. I picked up the switchblade I’d always kept by the chart table. When I slid the safety off and pressed the button, the blade flew forward and locked with a satisfying snick. The edge was still razor sharp and clean. I closed and locked it, and stuffed it into my back pocket. I found some anti-chafe leather in the back of one locker, some fishing weights in another, and used them to make a sap. If Fish or his mates came for me, I would at least be prepared.
When Ray walked into the bar the following Friday, I took up a position at the gate so I could easily see Meagan coming and going.
As usual, Ray sat at a table and another guy, who I hadn’t seen before, came to the bar. I watched as Meagan served him, but there was no handover, nothing said other than ordering and serving drinks. He was a tough-looking guy with a long scar running down his face from eye to chin. His expressionless eyes appeared to take nothing in. Most guys flirted a bit with Meagan, but not this one. He took the drinks and sat at the table with Ray. Neither man spoke; they just sat and looked as if waiting for someone.
They left half an hour later after two drinks. Meagan hadn’t left the bar. I looked at her quizzically. She grinned back triumphantly.
I went and stood beside her as she took glasses out of the washer. ‘Did you?’
‘Look more closely next week,’ she said with a self-satisfied grin.
I let it go. I knew she wouldn’t tell me then, if at all.
I was getting close to making some kind of contact with the underworld. There were at least two guys I was getting to know, and one woman about my age who was growing friendlier as time passed. I’d seen her talking with Ray and the Islanders, who, were clearly part of the core underworld. She also looked the type, if that makes sense. Smart, confident, and sexy; she’d always come in on her own, which said something about her in an area like The Cross. I didn’t think she was on the game. She dressed and spoke well, and had the air of somebody who was used to managing others: not bossy, but self-assured. She drank Jameson on ice and smoked B&H Gold.
She came in that night after eleven, sat at the bar and lit up. I made her usual and stood it in front of her.
‘Thanks, Micky.’ Her voice was soft and smoky.
‘You’re in late tonight. Movie?’
She hesitated, took a sip of her drink, and then pulled on her cigarette.
‘Yes. How’d you guess?’ She fiddled with her gold lighter, sliding it back and forth through slim fingers topped with perfectly manicured blood red nails. ‘Have you seen any good ones lately?’
‘I don’t get time nowadays,’ I said. ‘I’m always in here.’
‘Lenny doesn’t give you a night off once in a while?’
‘He’s a hard boss.’
‘Maybe you need a new boss. That way you could have a social life as well.’
‘You know, I’ve been thinking that same thing. I like it here, but—’
‘But there’s more to life, or some other old cliché. Right?’
I laughed. ‘Right.’
‘So what else do you do, Micky?’
Her voice was low and suggestive, or that’s how I read it. I didn’t know if she was giving me the come-on, or if that was just her way.
‘I do what pays well and interests me. If you hear of anything local that might suit me, let me know and I’ll owe you dinner—or a movie.’
She held my eyes, making me feel awkward.
‘What did you see tonight?’ I asked to break the silence.
She gave me a timid grin from below seductive eyes. ‘Dances With Wolves—and don’t laugh.’
I did, and then so did she.
‘It was that or Miller’s Crossing, and that was... well, not the right thing for tonight.’
‘You know, if I’m taking you out to dinner, I should at least know your name.’
She looked at me as if trying to decide whether to tell me or not, and then pushed her glass towards me.
‘Same again, Micky.’
‘It’s Carol,’ she said to my back.
I poured her drink, turned to face her, and she avoided my eyes.
‘I heard that you pissed off Kurt Reed.’
‘Where did you hear that?’
‘I just overheard it.’
I laid the glass in front of her. ‘One of his louts was out of line, so I threw him out. It was nothing.’
‘So you didn’t bash his face on the bar?’
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