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Viva la madness, p.9
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       Viva La Madness, p.9

           J. J. Connolly
 

  ‘Chop, chop, you’re in a fuckin daydream, you tart, hurry up!’

  Morty, as is his habit, breaks the spell. We’re half-trotting down the wet pavement, like old days.

  We’ve eventually parked up in Chelsea, just off the King’s Road, a select neighbourhood. It’s still relentlessly pissing down. I got wet crossing the pavement to the car, got rain running down the back of my neck and I’m cold to the marrow. It’s no use suggesting we hole up somewhere till it stops, cos it ain’t stopping. English summer weather.

  ‘Why you pulling the face?’ says Mort. ‘The lemon face?’

  ‘Sorry, General, I didn’t realise I—’

  ‘You’ll feel a bit more at home round this neck of the woods,’ says Mort, ‘bit more upmarket.’

  ‘Have you sorted me a gaff over here?’

  ‘Oh no, pal, we’re just visiting. There’s someone I want you to meet,’ says Mister Mortimer, with a hint of smile. ‘Last place you’d look for this geezer.’

  ‘Is it much further? Only I’m getting soaked here.’

  He stops dead in his tracks.

  ‘You’ve never done any heavy bird, have ya?’ he says.

  We’ve had this conversation a million times.

  ‘No, Mister Mortimer,’ I reply. ‘And you already know—’

  ‘I want you, pal,’ he says, giving me the pointy finger, ‘to take that insubordinate tone outta your voice. I know a lotta guys who are in-car-sir-rated who’d love to be out in the rain.’

  ‘Point taken,’ I say wearily, as rain drips off my nose.

  ‘Anyway, it’s only a shower,’ says Mort, with a morale-boosting but unconvincing smile. ‘Let’s go. Wouldn’t want you catchin a nasty head cold.’

  I can hear rolling thunder in the distance, the piss-yellow streetlights are on at two-thirty and I can see sheet lightning over the rooftops.

  ‘Who are we going to see?’ I ask, knowing I won’t get an answer.

  ‘You’ll know in a minute, little chum. Keep up.’ Morty’s scanning the street. ‘Chop-chop, this is bandit country.’

  You’re not wrong there, Mister M. All the large gaffs are noticeably belled-up, sinister red lights blinking on discreet CCTV cameras, neighbourhood watch signs on every lamppost. If one of the gentlefolk rang the local constabulary to say a couple of chaps were trotting along – one white boy, soaked to the skin, one big and coloured, acting suspicious – the cavalry would actually turn up, blue light flashing.

  We walk round the block. We do a sharp right, then another one, the same theory as the car journey. We arrive at a house in a short but leafy cul-de-sac, like a country cottage, very outta place. There’s wild roses growing around the door, ivy racing up the walls and oak beams on the outside walls. An upmarket mock Tudor. Out front there’s an overgrown privet hedge and the chequered windowpanes are daubed with whitener so busy neighbours can’t be nosing in.

  We step up to the door. Morty’s looking up and down the street but nothing’s moving. He ignores the bell and taps out a pre-arranged knock – a code – on the ornate knocker. We wait a few seconds. The rain gets even harder, sweeps across the pavement in waves. I hear a shuffling about inside.

  ‘Mort?’ says a grumpy voice through the door.

  ‘Right first time,’ says Mort.

  ‘Don’t be funny,’ says the guy as he fiddles with the catch.

  He opens the door and leaves it to fall open. Me and Mort step inside. The guy is already strolling back down the hall. Inside it’s heated like an orchid farm hothouse.

  ‘Make sure you shut it properly,’ shouts Grumpy, over his shoulder, as he disappears into a back room. ‘And, Mort, put the fuckin catch back on – okay?’

  I know the voice from somewhere … The house appears to be empty, no carpets, no furniture, bare floorboards; his voice bounces and echoes. Mort shuts the door, replaces the catch, takes off his coat and hangs it on the banisters, then motions me to follow him. I can smell recently fried sausages and hear booming, over-excited horseracing commentary.

  ‘I wanna see the end of this race, Mort,’ says the guy as we enter. ‘Won’t be long.’

  In the back room – which somehow reminds me of a neat cell – there’s a camp bed, very tidily made-up with hospital corners, a telly sat on the box it came out of the shop in, a kettle, fridge, tabloid newspapers folded neatly open at today’s runners and riders page and a couple of chairs that look like they were salvaged from a skip.

  And sitting on a stripy garden chair with an old Embassy Regal ashtray on his lap, very possessive, like he won’t share, smoking a pencil-thin liquorice paper rollie, intently but silently watching the gee-gees, is a gentleman who could win a Ted ‘Duppy’ Granger look-alike contest hands-down, no fuckin contest. The same hollow, scrawny, edgy face. The same mean and lean physique. Same salt ’n’ pepper spear-point cropped tight against his bony skull. The race finishes; his grim expression tells me he didn’t have the winner.

  ‘Work of the devil,’ says the guy, turning to me as he mutes the sound.

  ‘Horse racing?’ I ask, nodding at the screen.

  ‘Nah, them phones,’ he says, pointing at my mobile. The same voice that was on the phone last night.

  ‘Oh, right, yeah,’ I say, agreeing.

  ‘Unnecessary. Makes things easy for Old Bill.’ He shakes his head and turns to Mort. ‘Well, how did it go? Any problems?’

  ‘No, no,’ says Mort, lighting a salmon. ‘It was fine.’

  ‘Good turn-out?’ he asks.

  ‘’Bout hundred and fifty.’

  ‘Any Old Bill sniffin ’bout?’

  ‘None that I could see, don’t meant to say—’

  ‘I know,’ he says, raising his hand to silence Mister Mortimer. ‘How was Mum?’

  We’re getting warm. Could still be a long-lost brother …

  ‘Hard to tell. She’s bulletproof, your old mum.’

  ‘Shame I can’t … you know …’he says, his voice trailing off. We’re getting warmer.

  ‘What? Let Mum know?’ says Morty, the sympathetic voice of an agony aunt. ‘Maybe, in the fullness of time, Ted …’

  Ted. I was right. I’ve just been to your funeral, never having met you in my life, or your life either. Your wake is just getting going across town. The customary brawl isn’t scheduled for hours. But I’m curious – if Ted’s plotted watching the ponies from Kempton, who got incinerated at Cricklewood Crem?

  ‘Your mate got a lovely send off,’ says Mort. ‘Always said he’d do anything for ya. Never ’ave got hundred and fifty bodies at his own funeral.

  ‘Nah,’ agrees Ted, shaking his head. ‘Was a cab driver … Do they have a lotta mates?’

  Ted’s genuinely inquisitive.

  ‘Acquaintances rather than mates,’ says Mort, shrugging. ‘They have lots of acquaintances. Mates, acquaintances … it’s different, like.’

  ‘Sad, really,’ says Ted, rolling his eyes, shaking his head, ‘wanted to be one of the chaps … worst kind – pisshead plastic gangster. Took a bitta bottle, though.’

  ‘Sonny King sent a wreath,’ says Mort. ‘Signed it The Big Fella.’

  ‘“The Big Fella?” Could be anyone.’

  ‘Had the florist draw a little crown on the card.’

  ‘What a fuckin …’ says Ted, shaking his head, ‘Where’s he now?’

  ‘They’re on their way back.’

  ‘From Barbados?’

  ‘Yeah.’

  ‘Who’s they?’

  ‘Told ya. Sonny and Roy Burns.’

  ‘Oh, right. Twitchy, bless ’im.’

  ‘Should be back later.’

  ‘Did the undertaker take the cards off the flowers? Wouldn’t want Old Bill nosing—’

  ‘They always do, Ted, to show the relatives.’

  ‘Do they?’ asks Ted, ‘Give ’em to Bridget, did they?’

  ‘I suppose so, Ted,’ says Morty. ‘Anyways, the thing is, it’s too late for an inquest now.’

  They both ch
uckle like kids. Ted suddenly stops. He rounds on me.

  ‘What you got to say for yourself?’ he asks.

  ‘Not a lot,’ I reply.

  ‘Are you takin your fuckin coat off or what, pal?’ says Ted, pointing under my chair, ‘Only you’re makin a puddle on me floor.’

  I look down, but of course there’s no puddle. Ted’s checking me out the whole time, staring intently, smoking his skinny snout, seeing how I shape. I look back without getting combative. Mort says nothing. I enjoy the silence while Ted smokes his snout down so he has to use his nicotine-stained fingernails to get a last drag. He drops it into the ashtray to burn itself out. Morty breaks the silence.

  ‘My pal here,’ says Morty, nodding at me, ‘is in the Sonny King fan club.’

  They laugh at their private joke.

  ‘Is that right?’ says Ted, still staring intently at me. ‘Good pals with Sonny, are ya?’

  ‘He’s all right, is Sonny,’ I say diplomatically. ‘Got his funny little ways.’

  ‘Oh, right. That’s good, got his little funny ways,’ says Ted. ‘That’s one way of putting it.’

  ‘I take it, Ted, you don’t like the geezer,’ I say.

  ‘What makes you think that?’ says Ted with mock surprise.

  ‘Instinct, intuition – take your pick, Mister Granger,’ I say with a shrug.

  Ted leans forward, points his stained finger at the tip of my nose. A switch has been flicked.

  ‘Hold up, don’t get smart with me,’ he says, leaning forward, his natural frown getting tighter. ‘I was payin cunts when you was in short trousers. I put ’em in the ground, so don’t be givin it.’

  Morty leans forward, hands up to pacify him. ‘Ted, listen to me—’

  ‘Don’t ever forget it, pal,’ says Ted, eyes locked into mine. He spits out imaginary tobacco.

  These geezers think they’re soldiers. And you’re contemptible if you don’t hold your corner.

  ‘Ted …’ I say as slowly as I can, ‘let’s not waste each other’s time. You got me here, and the sooner you let me know what’s required, the sooner I’ll be able to tell ya if I can help. If I can’t … I’ll go back where I came from.’

  Ted just screws me like he’s got all the time in the world. Ted Granger instinctively knows that silence is more powerful than ranting, something Sonny will never understand. Ted opens his baccy tin and takes out another roll-up without taking his eyes off me. The tin is full to bursting with rows of identical ready-rolled fags. Up close the eyes that were red in the photo are icy-blue and drilling into me.

  ‘You don’t like Sonny King, do you?’ I say to break the silence. He waits a long time before answering.

  ‘No … I don’t,’ he says with a tic, ‘but then again, I’ve never met the man.’ I look to Mort but he’s pure deadpan.

  ‘That don’t make sense, after that night in Barbados … You do business together …’ I look back to Ted. ‘He said he knew you … went to see you in Spain …’ Back to Ted. He’s searching for a match. ‘But I was given to understand, Mister Granger,’ I say, ‘by Sonny King, I might add, that you two were buddies …’

  Ted lights his roll-up. ‘You know something, pal,’ he says, puffing hard to get it going, ‘you talk like proper Old Bill, CID. And I’ve only know ya two minutes. Straight up, I’d think you were a gavver. All that I have reason to believe, and I might add, I was given to believe, like you was in the witness box, reading a statement.’ He mimics a cozzer, ‘May I refer to my notes, me lord.’

  He doesn’t laugh. Neither do I. He instinctively waits. Then, ‘If you hadn’t come in here with Mortimer …’He points over at Mort but keeps his mincers locked on, ‘And he said you was sweet, let me know yer previous I woulda booked ya as a nailed-on plainie.’

  Ted fidgets in his seat, breathes hard but shallow. The oxygen in the room has rapidly evaporated. I wait, listening to the rain hitting the window, the hum of the fridge. I watch the colourful jockeys assembling for the next race.

  ‘You know something, Mister Granger,’ I say, eventually. ‘I’ve often thought that myself – people must think I’m Old Bill, but you know what?’

  ‘Wassat?’ he snaps.

  ‘I’d be too obvious to be a cozzer. You know what I am, don’t ya?’

  ‘No,’ says Duppy.

  ‘I’ll tell ya …’ I say slow. My turn to keep him waiting. ‘Like I was trying to tell Sonny King, but he couldn’t get his nut round it—’

  ‘You’re what, pal?’ says Ted. ‘Tell me!’

  ‘I’m an undercover criminal.’

  ‘I like that,’ says Ted, starting to grin slowly.

  ‘And it would appear – from what I can see these days – there’s only a few of us left. Tried explaining it to Sonny …’

  Ted smiles wider. Then he starts to laugh. Then he starts coughing, just like his dear old mum. He starts rocking, pounding his own chest, going red in the face, eyes watering. Ted takes a long drag on the snout – fuzzy logic, that – but starts to cough and laugh harder.

  ‘Let’s have a cuppa tea. You wanna cuppa tea, son?’ he says through the hacks, walking over to the kettle and flicking the switch.

  ‘That’d be nice,’ I say, winking at Mort. ‘A proper cuppa tea.’

  ‘An undercover criminal, I like that,’ he turns back to face us. ‘And Sonny didn’t get it?’

  ‘Totally spun him out, Ted. Confused him,’ I say.

  ‘He’s one big stupid cunt, that Sonny,’ says Ted, shaking his head, about the guy he’s never laid eyes on. He goes in the fridge and fishes out a carton of pasteurised milk.

  ‘He likes ya,’ whispers Morty, nodding in Ted’s direction.

  Then suddenly Mort snaps his fingers, sits bolt upright. He’s forgotten something important. ‘By the way,’ he says. ‘Sorry, I’ve gotta ask. Your ashes – where would you like them scattered?’

  Ted raises his eyebrows, his tongue poking out. Thinking hard, massaging the back of his neck. Then, a revelation. He clicks his fingers – a dry snap.

  ‘Scotland Yard!’ says Ted with a double straight face. ‘Scatter ’em at Scotland Yard.’

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  YOU LIKE RIDDLES?

  ‘When did you die?’ I ask.

  ‘Three days ago. Wednesday, late evening, just as everyone was going off-duty,’ says Ted with an ironic smile. ‘And buried today. Couldn’t have had it sooner, not without booking the undertaker in advance.’

  ‘That woulda been suspect,’ says Mort.

  ‘I was flown in yesterday morning, kept on ice, a sealed casket,’ says Ted, ‘too burnt up for anyone to see.’ Then, like it’s been bothering him, ‘So Sonny didn’t show at the crem? Coulda made the effort. You did.’

  ‘So Sonny knows you’re alive?’ I ask.

  Ted shakes his head. ‘Don’t you be worrying about Sonny … And don’t be telling him either.’ Then with the eyes, ‘And you better be nice to Sonny. Okay, mate?’

  ‘And what about Bridget? Does she know?’

  Ted looks to Morty before answering, ‘Yeah,’ he says with a small nod. He points at me but talks to Mort. ‘How much does he know?’

  ‘How much you gonna tell him?’ replies Mort, pokerfaced.

  Kevin the Cab went over the side. He turned up in Spain just before last Easter and begged Ted to help him kill himself. Assisted suicide. He was dying from an AIDS-related illness. Picked it up in Thailand, fucking too many bar girls. Few years ago he’d had the stopover holiday on the way to Oz. Bad move. Once he got a taste he was trying to make up for a lifetime of going without. Could never nick a bird. If Kevin the Cab fell in a barrel of tits he’d climb out sucking his thumb. So he filled his boots in Thailand and Vietnam. Ted knew him from when they were juniors. The disgrace would have killed him – and his family – along with the AIDS.

  It’s a funny one, ain’t it, neighbourhood morality? Round where I grew up, you can be a psychopath, drug dealer or a dangerous lunatic who sticks broken glasses in pe
ople’s throats, but for God’s sake don’t do anything bizarre like become a born-again Christian, a spit-and-polished reformed alcoholic or go catching AIDS.

  Ted thinks he did him a favour. It’s that debatable fuzzy logic.

  Kevin, I suspect, walked into a scheme that was already being hatched. Kevin will end up on the missing persons list; his family thinks he’s MIA in South East Asia. The ‘witness’ who reported seeing Ted’s car going into the deep gorge – after the driver had been driving muy rápidamente around the tight hairpin bends towards the tollroad – is a Spanish builder who was paid by Ted for his complete fabrication. The builder forgot to mention that Ted had intensively coached him. What he’d really witnessed was Ted getting out of the car and a paralytic drunk Kevin getting in – Kevin the Cab could handle a motor, drunk or sober.

  It gets better … Ted also had a senior detective in the Guardia Civil straightened right out.

  Ted’s Spanish cozzer was put in charge of the accident investigation after the English started asking questions. He was the one who sent back the report saying they were convinced that the charred remains were those of Edward Granger, Spanish resident, one-time fugitive but not wanted or under any indictment. The Spanish indignantly informed the British that they had checked the deceased’s dental records. The British police – smelling a toasted rat and corruption – worked without overtime pay to investigate, went over the head of the Civil Guard detective, and asked that the dental records from Mister Granger’s Spanish dentist and the dental chart of the charred skull be sent up to the UK to be checked with the ones they held. They thought they were being smart. This was what Ted wanted – this was his coup de maître – his masterstroke.

  The dental records were faxed through to the detectives in the UK and immediately checked with the records held by Her Majesty’s Prison Service. They thought they had an ace in the hole. They must be conclusive, if a little out of date. But the records had been exchanged by a trustee prisoner who was doing life-meaning-life and was going nowhere-meaning-nowhere. The lifer got a few quid in his canteen account, paid in by an anonymous benefactor. When the records got sent over, they corresponded exactly with the charred remains because Kevin had been sent to see a malleable Spanish dentist who filled out a genuine HMP dental chart. The Spanish coroner who examined the charred remains thought the British were overly suspicious.

 
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