Knaves over queens, p.22
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.22

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  The boss’s digs were posh beyond any reasonable middle-class aspirations. Chequerboard marble floor, oak-panelled walls, paintings of nobs in nineteenth-century dress. The sole discordant note in the hall’s ambiance was the dial telephone screwed to the wall beside the sweeping staircase: GPO engineers had no respect for cultural heritage. Pussyface had a study (or rather, a Victorian gent’s smoking den) beside the drawing room. It was crammed full of oak furniture with oxblood leather padding and brass trim, shelves on three walls crammed with gilt-edged books bought by the yard, all presided over by a rather naff painting of the Battle of Culloden. The desk had probably seen battle at Trafalgar. It supported three telephones, a whisky decanter, an ornate silver salt-shaker, and a drably functional automatic pistol.

  ‘Allen Crippen, welcome to my manor.’ Pussyface neither stood nor smiled, but waved vaguely at the spindly rococo visitors’ seats before his desk. ‘Siddown, lad. So what you fink of the work?’ Today Pussyface was channelling Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday, if Hoskins had been born to a man-eating tiger.

  Allen sat obediently, pulse hammering. ‘I—’ He paused. ‘There were bones in one of the boxes,’ he said quietly.

  Pussyface stared at him unblinking. ‘How d’you work that out?’

  ‘Bones are … they’re like stone, you know? I can feel them, a bit. Not much inside me or you or anyone else alive, but once they’re dead – it’s really weird, I just know.’ He watched his boss, wanting to lose his rag and shout I’m not your fucking gravedigger, but aware it would be futile. ‘The other boxes were fine, I mean, I couldn’t tell anything about them, but the one at the end—’

  Pussyface blinked and looked away. ‘He tried to grass us up, laddie. Don’t you forget that. I’m very forgiving. If you owe me money you can’t pay me back if you’re dead, know what I mean? And dead bodies draw the filth like flies on a fuckin’ stoater, so it means grief all round. I don’t hold with murder: if anyone murders someone on my turf I’ll fucking kill them and no mistake. If you cross me I’ll batter you but leave you alive – unless you’re a squealer.’ In the twilight of his den, Pussyface’s slit pupils were dilated, huge dark circles focused on his prey. ‘Like the waste of space you just buried. Do you understand?’

  ‘I—’ Allen swallowed. ‘I just wanted a job, nothing illegal.’

  ‘Tough. You’ve got one now and you’re on the inside whether you want it or not because I got a use for you.’ Pussyface blinked and glanced down at his desk, then pulled a drawer open. ‘But I tell you what, let’s do a deal. Ask me no questions and I’ll not burden your conscience, lad. It’s best for both of us if you don’t see nothing irregular. Just you remember to look away when I tell you to and we’ll be fine.’ He pulled out an envelope. ‘And there’ll be more of these. ’Ere. Take it.’

  Allen caught the envelope between nerveless fingers.

  ‘That’s a retainer,’ Pussyface added. ‘Same every month. Plus a commission every time I’ve got a call-out for you. Dig a hole, fill it in, no names, no pack drill, ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies. There’ll be no more bodies, I got that. In the meantime, you’ll work for Gary, humping boxes whenever you feel like it, aye?’

  Allen swallowed again, and nodded.

  ‘Get out,’ Pussyface said genially. ‘Ron will take you home. You’re crashing with Jenny Three-Arms, huh?’ He shook his head. ‘Odd bird, no accounting for taste. Get out. Wait,’ he added before Allen made it to the door: ‘Ron’ll pick you up from the yard tomorrow. Got a little job for you, your chance to start earning your keep.’ He grinned broadly. ‘You’re on commission now. Welcome to the big time, lad.’

  Allen fled, nerves in tatters, and didn’t think to open the envelope and count the contents until he sat down at Jenny’s kitchen table that evening.

  Two thousand pounds in an envelope a month, and all he had to do was dig holes and fill them in. What could possibly go wrong?

  By the prickling in her thumbs and the easing of her lodger’s shoulders, Jennifer Scott recognized that she’d lucked into a big break. The evening after her meeting with the sergeant she had got home to be met by Allen with an expensive bottle of Scotch and a bouquet of flowers. After the inevitable enthusiastic tumble – the lad was still as eager as a puppy, hadn’t quite worked out that she wouldn’t kick him out of bed if he didn’t hurry – he unwound enough to tell her that Pussyface had bunged him a fat retainer. But as she toasted his success and they worked their way down the bottle he unwound even further, becoming morose. ‘That guy scares me,’ he confided, flicking ash from a post-coital spliff into a guttering tea light. ‘He had me dig a tunnel under someone else’s yard then bury a load of boxes down there.’ The reflection of the candle flame flickered nervously in his eyes. ‘And his bloke Ron has a sawn-off shotgun taped under the driver’s seat of his Transit. I don’t care if he paid for the community centre, there was something not right about it.’

  Clever lad, Jenny thinks sarcastically, then regrets it a moment later. She’s got four hard years on him, it’s not his fault he’s still wet behind the ears. ‘What sort of “not right” do you mean?’ she coaxed, digging for details.

  But she’d pushed too far, too fast: ‘I’ve never met a real gangster before,’ Allen said, then sighed unhappily and changed the subject.

  She was at the centre the next morning, keeping her ear to the ground as usual, and Allen evidently had an uneventful day hauling boxes in and out of Gary’s lock-up. Whatever was in the boxes – colour TVs, VCRs, crates of booze that fell off the back of a lorry, mate, honest – Gary sold it cheap, or at least below cost. Gary worked for Pussyface, and Pussyface worked for Edgar ‘the Fish’ Morton, and the Fish needed legit businesses to launder the cash proceeds from his various criminal enterprises.

  Legend had it that the Fish had held his own against the Kray gang. Rumour had it that the Met couldn’t get anything on his operation. Informers didn’t turn up dead, they just vanished into an unmarked grave. Rumour had it he’d nicked a leaf from one of the barmier Palestinian terror groups’ book, buried informers alive and dropped food and water into their coffin through a pipe until he had finished interrogating them, at which point he substituted a bullet – or if he was really mad, just pulled out the tube. ‘Pillars of the community’ was all anyone would ever say about the Fish and his Glaswegian enforcer with the vertical pupils and retractable claws, and they didn’t mean it in a nice way, flash donations to local charities notwithstanding. They meant something more like a gibbet than a kindly support.

  On Sunday, Jenny wheedled Allen into helping her at the centre again, making up care packages and then stepping out to deliver them to some of the elderlies who were housebound. A lot of them had ended up in grim concrete prefabs like the Barkantine Estate tower blocks. There’d been an unofficial council policy of shoving cripples, nutters, and jokers into a housing ghetto back in the sixties. Out of sight, they remained conveniently out of mind, and while these days they were officially the disabled and special needs cases, a lot of the old prejudice remained. Many of them were too timid and vulnerable to go out on their own or in daylight.

  As for Allen, he wasn’t enthusiastic about helping at first, but the way he sat up and paid attention when she smiled at him would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so predictable. And he got the point eventually. ‘They’re our people and if we don’t look after them, who will?’ she guilt-tripped him, after he got the willies from meeting Mrs Halcyon. I’ll turn you into a fine upstanding public service employee yet, see if I don’t, she resolved. And anyway, Mrs Halcyon freaked out most people on first acquaintance. (A lonely seventy-seven-year-old widow who didn’t bother locking her front door because she craved company, yet the local wide boys and thugs were too frightened by her appearance even to burgle her.)

  Allen sighed. ‘I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here,’ he said, waving one gloved hand at the window at the end of the lift lobby on the twelfth floor.

‘Here as in Barkantine Court, or here as in London?’

  ‘Both. Neither.’ The lift arrived, smelling of stale cigarettes and piss as usual. ‘I ran away, didn’t I? And I’m not sure it was the right thing to do.’

  Jenny took his hand as he pushed the button for the thirteenth floor. (Next stop, Albert Parsons. No legs, just a mass of tentacles from the waist down. Easy on the eyes after Mrs Halcyon.) ‘I’m happy you’re with me,’ she said, studiously artless.

  ‘Yeah, but apart from that …’

  Another house call, then back to the lift, sixteenth and final floor. (Next stop, Sybil ‘Fawlty’ Knox. A bad case of scleroderma, her soft tissues turning to living leather. Barely able to move unaided.)

  ‘… there’s too much money, Jenn, know what I mean?’ His expression was almost pleading. ‘It’s, like, there’s got to be some kind of catch, right?’

  Damn right there’s a catch, she thought grimly. ‘You could always go home,’ she prompted. ‘Let ’em forget about you?’

  On the way back down he was breathing too fast. ‘Can’t go back.’ He looked desperate. ‘They said they’d kill me—’ He shut up, but clung to her hand like a child afraid of drowning in the paddling pool. Which, in a manner of speaking, he was. He’s telling the truth, she realized dismally. That was the worst thing about her second-rate talent: it made turning a blind eye to some of her colleagues’ less salubrious activities impossible. But her deuce was half the reason she’d drawn this duty, of course.

  ‘Then it sounds like you’re better off here,’ she said, hating herself a little for leading him deeper into the maze. ‘With me, right? You worry too much about the job. But, tell you what, if you think something stinks, let me know and I’ll give you a sanity check, all right? Why don’t you tell me about what you got up to last Thursday that put the wind up you? Wasn’t it something about burying boxes?’

  Thursday rolled round again and this time things got interesting. Jenny’s first indication that she’d rattled the higher branches of the org tree came when Sergeant Rutherford met her outside the briefing room. ‘Skipper wants a word, luv,’ he said, taking her elbow and steering her towards the corner office. ‘It’s about your nominal from last week.’

  ‘What? Allen? He’s got prior?’ She started slightly.

  ‘No conviction as such, but not for want of trying.’ Rutherford paused, one hand on the inspector’s office doorknob. ‘Go on in.’

  ‘Damnit,’ she muttered under her breath. Opened the door: ‘Sir? You wanted to see me?’

  ‘Come in, Constable. Take a seat.’

  Inspector Matthews was younger and sharper than Rutherford and a whole lot chillier. ‘Your lodger is Allen Crippen, yes? Formerly of—’ he rattled off an address in Solihull. ‘Correct?’

  Jenny cleared her throat. ‘Can’t say, sir. He hasn’t been terribly forthcoming about his background. Hence the, er, nominal request.’ For a trawl of the Police National Computer system. ‘But the age and accent fit. Did we find anything? The sergeant hasn’t briefed me yet.’

  ‘Yes, we found something.’ Matthews gave her an odd look. ‘Did you enjoy playing with matches when you were a kid? Read this.’ He slid a printout across his desk. Jenny picked it up and frowned intently as she read.

  ‘Infected three months ago, university field trip to a municipal sewage works … six weeks in a coma? Then—’ her frown intensified. ‘Sir, this isn’t right.’ She put the music-ruled printout down again. ‘Assuming there’s only one Allen Crippen with XTA from Brum, I can’t see him doing any of the stuff on the charge sheet. I mean, GBH, assaulting a police officer, escaping from custody, destruction of Crown property?’ She remembered his bruises, their barely faded echoes. ‘He’s a knave, sure, but he’s also wet behind the ears. This is West Midlands’ MO, you know what they’re like?’ She stopped, suddenly aware that it might sound like special pleading.

  Matthews’ stare was piercing. ‘Yet here he is, in on the ground floor with the Fish, Constable. Doesn’t look terribly innocent, does it? I appreciate that you’ve done well to take him in and lend him a sympathetic ear, but some actual operational intelligence would be gratefully received. If his intel checks out, and if you think it necessary to supply additional motivation, I will ask if our colleagues up north might be willing to reconsider the minor stuff, but tunnelling through a custody suite wall? He’s going to have to cough up something really good to get out of that.’

  ‘Well, let me give you his down payment.’ Now Jenny knew she was on solid ground. It had taken a while to get it out of him. ‘Last Thursday Pussyface tested him – had him bury a cache of some kind, possibly including a body, then pulled him in for a job interview. The cache was dug in via a tunnel under wasteground in Winchmore Hill—’

  Pussyface’s ‘jobs’ didn’t amount to much at first. Excavating rubble sites, shoring up cellars, checking houses for subsidence and fixing it. He spent three whole days at Pussyface’s mansion, expanding the wine cellar under the back garden, packing and lining three new rooms and a corridor with compressed clay and fusing it in place before a regular construction crew showed up to finish it off. It was mildly tedious but at least he was doing something useful, and the envelopes full of cash were nice (even if Pussyface was getting him on the cheap compared to a real firm of structural engineers). His fears persistently failed to materialize, until he began to wonder if McAndrews had been yanking his chain: had there ever been a body in the first place?

  A few weeks after Jenny discussed his work history with her superiors, Allen found himself sitting in a greasy spoon, frowning mildly as Ron the driver introduced him to his new teammates.

  ‘Guys, this is Allen. Allen is our construction specialist, a real live human JCB. Allen, this is Mick. And this is Nigel. Don’t ask their surnames or where they live, right?’

  ‘New fish!’ Mick chortled quietly.

  Allen nodded. He felt adrift and out of place, nervous every time the waitress sent him a jaundiced look. She was probably just afraid he was putting off the regular punters, with his hat, dark glasses, and a scarf tugged over the bridge of his nose. Mick, whose own nose resembled a dropped cauliflower, was otherwise boringly human to all outward appearances. Nigel was also human enough, apart from the greenish pallor of his skin and the elf-like points of his ears. ‘Pleased ta meetcha,’ Nigel announced, his throat swelling as if he’d swallowed a frog.

  ‘Got it,’ Allen agreed. I think. ‘What are we here for?’

  Ron spooned sugar into his coffee. ‘Some light civil engineering, the boss called it. We’re renting a shop front in Hatton Garden. Tomorrow you’re going to dig a tunnel from the basement. We’re renovating the shop and there’ll be skips coming in to take away the debris. Be sure you don’t cut through any sewers or drop the road down on yer head. Or go too deep and hit the Tube.’

  ‘A tunnel—’

  ‘A tunnel. Under the street, beneath the pavement, around a lift shaft, and into the cellar of the building opposite. The walls are reinforced concrete eighteen inches thick and wired with alarms, but you can drill between them, right?’

  Allen froze. ‘You’re talking about breaking into—’

  ‘No names, no pack drill,’ Ron growled. ‘You already dug one tunnel. What’s another between friends, eh?’

  ‘But that was—’ Allen stopped.

  ‘I think you’ll find it ain’t so different in the eyes of the law.’ Ron’s eyes glinted malevolently. ‘You’re just a pickaxe. Leave yer conscience to the handle, aye?’

  Hatton Garden was a very upmarket business district. Every other shop window seemed to be a jeweller’s. Half the offices belonged to advertising agencies populated by posh young things with braying accents and expensive spectacle frames. Discarded Porsches were strewn along the kerb as thickly as the bin bags around Jenny’s flat. A discreet brass sign by a door around the corner read De Beers. The shop that the Fish’s people had rented was unaccountably empty, sandwiched between the greasy spoon
and another damned jeweller with a window display of wedding rings, each worth more than Allen could dream of earning in a year. Nigel and Mick already had a load of tools set up inside the front window, sawhorses and plasterboard and other stage trappings suitable for builders intent on refurbishing a retail unit. Ron led Allen into the back, past a stockroom and a cramped office, to a warren of narrow passages floored with worn lino. They went through the break room to a staircase leading down into a darkness that smelled faintly of sewage.

  ‘Yer going to need to take care as you dig,’ Ron warned him. ‘There’s lots of tunnels down here, an’ not just the Tube and sewers: them jewellers like ter move stock below ground to stay out o’ sight of the likes of us.’ He cracked his knuckles then opened a door onto a whitewashed cellar illuminated by a single dangling yellowish bulb. Someone with a spray can had scrawled measurements and angles across the middle of the far wall, like a maths lesson gone wrong. ‘We’re gonna need a crawlway at least two feet wide and high, starting right here. The bigger the better. The lift shaft at the target is a hundred and thirty-six feet in that direction. There’s probably a cross-tunnel between the De Beers vault and the target – you don’t wanna breach it by accident. The road starts twenty-eight feet past the wall and is forty-six feet wide, and you’ll need to shore up the ceiling, it’s a bus route and gets armoured car deliveries …’

  ‘That’s going to take time,’ Allen warned him. ‘Also, there’s going to be a lot of loose debris.’ He glanced around the cellar. ‘More than enough to fill this room to the ceiling.’

  ‘You turn stuff to powder, right? Start by stacking it here and then look for a sewer we can dump it down. The boys’ll run you a hose from the water mains and you can flush all you like. Anyway, you won’t know ’til you get started, will you?’ It was a pointed hint.

  Allen huffed. ‘Going to need lights, too. And a tarp and a shovel.’

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