Friday, February 16, 2007

Chapter 12

Deciding I could do little more of use in the office, I turned off the computer. Before locking the filing cabinets I opened the drawer marked 'Personnel' and removed a thick manila folder which I tucked under my arm. Someone or something in there might be able to shed light on the mystery of the disappearing notebooks and files. I left the office turning off the lights as I went. The game, it would seem, was afoot. I needed a cigarette, a pint, and a quiet moment to think.

In the dimly lit corridor the silence was almost tangible. It was broken only by my footsteps on the scuffed parquet flooring. I could see light spilling through the fanlight of the Chinese import-export company but no other evidence of occupation. The Jewish furriers were orthodox and would have left before sunset to prepare themselves for the Sabbath. The escort agency was in darkness.

I left the building and walked around the corner into Slater Street. It was a narrow side street made narrower by cars parked on either side. It was littered with cafes, takeaways and pubs offering happy hours, doubles bars, and early evening cocktails for office and shop workers on their way back to the 'burbs. On the right a new place had opened. The name was taken from a bar in New York where I had once celebrated St Patrick's day. I looked through the plate glass window. The resemblance to the Manhattan bar ended with the name.

Next door was Guinan's, an Irish theme pub. A broad-shouldered black man in a black silk bomber jacket stood on the front step vetting the customers who passed him to get to the door. I smiled a hello but he looked through me as though I wasn't there. His eyes were programmed to acknowledge only trouble or pretty girls.

The long stone-flagged bar room was sparsely populated. The shop girls who would fill it after six were still behind counters and working cash registers. A group of office workers sat around a small old-fashioned wooden table on chairs looted from church halls and Sunday schools. The men wore suits with loosened silk ties and poly-cotton shirts with the collar button undone. You couldn't tell the cheap from the expensive the way they were worn. The women were kitted out in a range of business gear. Blouses from Lewis's, Littlewoods and M and S; skirts from Next and Warehouse; shoes from Dolcis. I guessed they were bank clerks breaking up the journey home or preparing for a long haul safari in the jungle of Friday night pubs and clubs.

I leaned against the counter and waited for one of the three staff to notice my presence. They were talking at the far end of the bar. Eventually one of them glanced up and saw me. He turned sluggishly and walked unwillingly down to where I stood. I didn't recognise him, but it wasn't a place I regularly used. He wore a green T-shirt bearing the pub's logo. On the T-shirt was printed a sentence in Irish. It translated as 'I am Irish from the island of Ireland.' His skin was fair, his eyes were blue and his mop of hair was black. On looks alone, he could fit the bill.

'Wharr yer 'aving, lah?' he said in a North Liverpool drawl which dispelled the illusion. I ordered a pint of Guinness and which he sprayed into a glass. I carried it over to an empty table in an alcove by the front window.

As I sipped the dark beer, I thought about Tom again. In my years working with him, this was the first thorough-going mystery I had ever encountered. Most of the cases I had worked had been about as mysterious as The Sun crossword. The only mystery most of the time was when you were going to get paid.

I opened the file I had taken from the office. It contained three smaller folders; one marked 'Timesheets', another 'Wages' and the final one 'Correspondence'. The first held photocopies of forms detailing hours worked on a weekly basis. Separate columns indicated the date and the name of the client. At the top of the form was a space for the name of the operative. Most of them were blank, indicating that Tom had undertaken the work. A few bore other names, some I recognised some I didn't. Tom had obviously dealt with my departure by sub-contracting work, by the look of it a quite substantial amount. I smiled at that thought. I had been cheap to employ but very expensive to replace, but he would have borne the cost rather than ask me back.

My own name did not appear at all. The timesheets only went back as far as April and I had left in March. I scanned through the sheets. During the week before his death, Tom had devoted his time exclusively to Mrs McGann. He had billed over 50 hours on it that week.

The rest of his caseload had been dished out to other agencies and freelancers, none of whom appeared to have worked on the McGann case. For all his doggedness, it was unusual for him to work so single-mindedly for one client. I wondered what the case was for it to prove so distracting. I made a mental note of the few names I recognised on the timesheets. I would call them to see if they could tell me anything about what Tom was doing.

The wages file held nothing of use to me. Tom had employed a part-time book-keeper since April. The correspondence file gave me her address. A letter confirming her appointment, hours and conditions of labour had been posted to a Miss Ryan at an address in Netherly a few months earlier. It had been typed using Tom's manual and I smiled at the number of tippexed corrections. He was the only typist I knew who could be ham-fisted with a single finger.

As I flicked through the papers, two men sat down at the table alongside mine in the window alcove. I tried to ignore them. They made it hard to do. that. No sooner had they seated themselves than they launched into a heated debate about politics in over-loud voices. It was clear that this was a late round in a battle which had been going on over discount beer in pubs for most of the afternoon.

These were happy-hour merchants; unemployed men stretching their dole or fiddle money over as many cheap pints as it would allow. Because of the proximity of their table to mine, I knew that sooner or later they would try to draw me into their conversation. This was a Liverpool pub and there was no escaping the inevitable. I avoided eye contact and buried myself deeper into the file.

From the corner of my eye I could see the older of the two, a slight man with pale grey hair and beard looking me over. He was losing the argument and seeking an out. Eventually he leaned across. He was definitely drunk and from what I had overheard of their debate, neither would win prizes in a sparkling personality competition.

'Is dar a birr of overtime, den, lah?' His voice was friendly but thick with beer. It contrasted to the aggression I had heard in it during their discussion. I looked up and said nothing. I kept my expression blank and shook my head. He went on.

'Ownny de money mus' be great for you to be werkin' in deh pub on a Fridee night.'

I could see I was not going to get away from this one.

'Look, wee man, no offence, but I've got have this out the way before six otherwise the boss'll do for me.' I smiled insincerely, not that he'd have noticed.

'No problem, lah. Jus' thought seein' youse on yer own an' all you might want a birr o' crack, like. Work is it? I'll leave you to it then, mate.'

He resumed conversation with his companion, a tall heavy man in his late twenties. I could hear him softly explaining away my rebuff. I went back to the papers before me. I ran through them all again to see if they could tell me anymore than I already knew. They didn't. I felt frustrated and annoyed. I wanted a cigarette.

I drained my glass walked to the bar, ordered another pint of Guinness, bought a box of matches, and obtained change for the cigarette machine. The first three columns were empty and I thought that maybe God was trying to tell me something. I finally obtained a packet of Marlboro and returned pint in hand to my table.

I could see that the younger of the two drunks was leaning over trying to read the top page of the folder I had left open on the table. I stood next to the table watching him. When he became aware of my presence, his head snapped back. He looked vaguely embarrassed but offered no apology, verbal or non-verbal. I said nothing.

I resumed my seat and began reading. I decided I would list the names of Tom's subcontractors alongside the client cases they had worked. It was just displacement activity, I knew, but it would make it easier when I called them all over the next few days and I wasn't doing anything else right now. I could my neighbours glancing furtively in my direction from the corner of my eye. It was only a matter of time before they renewed contact.

When I'd finished the list, I removed the outer wrapping of cellophane and crumpled it together with the silver paper inner cover into a small neat ball which I dropped in the ashtray. I drew out a cigarette, pushed it between my lips, lit it and inhaled. I felt the sweetish taste of toasted tobacco and the rush of nicotine lighten my head. The younger man, who had been watching me, rose from his seat and moved to the chair facing me across my table. He wore a black leather biker's jacket festooned with zip-fasteners and enamel badges. He leaned across the table and I could smell the stale beer on his breath.

'Give us a ciggie.'

It was a challenge, not a request. He was not from the city. His voice had a Lancashire burr. St. Helens or Widnes, I thought. He was a woolly-back, a culchie, fair game in Liverpool on a Friday night.

'I don't smoke' I said drawing in on my Marlboro. I took it from my mouth in my left hand and tapped the ash onto the floor with my index finger. My eyes remained on his throughout. A look of confusion flickered across his face.

'What the fuck's that, then?' he said indicating the cigarette in my left hand.'

'It looks like a kingsize filter tip to me.' His confusion deepened.

'Well I said give us one.'

'And I said I don't smoke.' His face flushed pale crimson.

'D'you think I'm soft. I can use me eyes, you know.'

'I don't know if you're soft or hard, wee boy, but I do know you've manners that would be a shame in a farmyard. Where I come from me mammy taught me to say please and thank you when I wanted something.' His perplexity turned to anger. He knew I was baiting him but he wasn't quite sure how to deal with it yet.

'I know where you're from, you Paddy bastard. I were in th'Army and you'd not get away with making a coont out of me if we were over there now.'

His Lancashire accent broadened as his anger mounted. I waited silently to see if he'd back off. He didn't. I had to find someway out of the situation. I hated fighting with drunks. They won't lie down and you have to hurt them more than you would a sober opponent.

'I want a fooking fag. Now.' He spoke slowly with deliberate emphasis on each word.

Without warning he reached to snatch the packet up from the table. He was too slow. As his arm snaked across, my left hand containing the cigarette stabbed abruptly downwards. The glowing tip exploded on the back of his hand half an inch above the knuckle of his middle finger. He yelped in surprise and pain, reflexively pulling the burnt paw to his lips. It would hurt now and stay sore tomorrow. I knew. Someone had done it to me once. I still had the scar. I picked up the fag packet and put it carefully in my jacket pocket.

'What did you do that for, you fooking Irish bastard?' He spoke from behind his hand in a hurt whine. He looked as though the fight might have gone out of him. I hoped it had.

'Look, wee man, you shouldn't take what you don't own. Remember your manners.'

The shock of unexpected pain subsided. His face reddened and I could see in his expression that he wasn't going to let things lie here.

'I know your sort, you fooking Provo. I don't need lessons in manners from the likes of you.'

'If you don't cop on, squaddie, you might end up with a lesson you won't forget in a wee while.'

'Oh aye, yeh? What are you going to do, you fooking taig? Get your Fenian friends to go to work on me kneecaps? Fooking gangster animals and your women are worse. We knew how to deal with them in our regiment.'

He was well on the road to major violence. I imagined the things going through his mind. Being spat at on the Falls, shot at in Andytown, smelling the fear on himself and his mates on foot patrol in South Armagh. I had no intention of becoming the means for him to exorcise those experiences. He was half a foot taller than me and probably out-weighed me by two or three stones. If it came to a stand up fight he would win. Or do me serious harm in the process. I just didn't need the aggravation. I could see him eye the heavy glass ash-tray, assessing its potential as a weapon.

My eyes flickered below the table. His feet and legs were spread apart. I decided to end the interaction right now. Bracing myself on the edge of the table top, I tilted back on the rear legs of my chair. I felt its old joints creak and shift with the added stress. I lifted my right leg into a horizontal position, bending it slightly at the knee. Fortunately the table was high and the old Sunday school chair was low. He just looked at me, deciding how and when he would cause me pain. If he went for me now with the chair off balance I would be in serious trouble. I wondered how long it would take the doorman to spot the ruckus and come to my rescue.

I lifted my hands from the table and my chair tipped forward suddenly, throwing my full weight forward. My right leg drove like a battering ram towards his groin. I straightened my knee just before contact with his body and my timing was perfect. The heel of my DM caught him square in the groin area and the thick rubber sole buried itself at the base of his beer-belly.

He was ready for neither the shock or the pain of the blow and his breath left him like the air from a burst balloon. He fell sideways from the chair onto all fours gasping and coughing for breath on the floor. His face was white. The nerves in my own stomach and groin tingled in empathy with the agony I knew would be radiating up his body. His companion looked on in shock and surprise, speechless.

I stood up. Now was a good time to leave. I closed my folder, picked it up and tucked it under my arm. I walked around the table towards the door. The woolly-back ex-squaddie was still on all fours. He was making retching noises now. I resisted the temptation to help him empty his stomach with another kick. As I reached the door, the black bouncer pushed past me through it.

'What deh fuck is going on 'ere?' His question was rhetorical, addressed to no-one in particular. The old man looked at me for guidance, his eyes wide. I leaned against the edge of the open door and shrugged. The old man spoke to the bouncer but looked at me. I gave him my most menacing wink.

'Nothin', mate, nothin'. 'Is beer just went down the wrong way, dat's all.'

The man on the floor began vomiting steadily and the sour smell of partly ingested beer polluted the air. The bouncer sniffed in distaste. He grabbed the ex-squaddie by the scruff of the neck and pulled him roughly to his feet.

'If he's going to fuckin' laugh at the floor, 'e can do it on the road, alrigh? You. Drink your pint and fuck off out of it. Now. Fuckin' alkies.' The old man nodded frantically in assent. In one movement, the bouncer turned the younger man and bundled him past me out of the door I was holding open. He dumped him onto the street to the left of the doorway. I followed behind him and turned right onto Bold St.

As I walked up the hill towards St Luke's I tried to place the episode in some context. I never knowingly looked for trouble, but somehow it would seek me out. An old girlfriend once said that I just had 'one of those faces.' I didn't know. I was no nearer improving my self-knowledge when I reached the top of the street.

Tom's steel nemesis was still in place. A small bunch of flowers wrapped in cellophane lay at the foot of the tree. There was no card to indicate a donor. Scouse and Beryl, I thought. The police appeal notice had disappeared as predicted. It was probably decorating a study bedroom in a student hall of residence. I never understood why students felt the desire to acquire such objects. There seemed to be a lot of things I didn't understand. And as I passed the tree, I knew what the most important of them was. It was the reason why Tom Geraghty had ended up in the chapel of rest.

I looked again carefully at the tree and its surroundings and wished I had access to the police photographs and diagrams of the scene. I didn't even know on which side of the tree Tom had been found. Breege was right about one thing. It was a long way from the Berry Street kerbside. Furthermore, the broad paved area was occupied by a scattering of circular concrete litter bins. Anyone mounting the kerb at speed from that side would have been sure to have made contact with one of them. I examined each in turn. I could see no signs of impact damage.

I looked down at their bases. There was no broken glass or coloured plastic in evidence, the normal detritus of vehicle collision which often lingered long after the event. The tree was much nearer the Bold Street kerb. Even so, the sharp corner and the ramps of sleeping policemen placed every few yards in the road surface would have prevented any vehicle from getting up sufficient speed to throw a man of Tom's size as far as the tree.

My cycle of pacing and pausing had begun to attract attention from other pedestrians. An Asian man watched me with open curiosity from the doorway of a curry house and two old ladies seated on a wooden bench waiting for a taxi home had made me the subject of their talk. I could see they thought I was another eccentric product of care in the community. For the second time in half an hour I decided now would be a good time to leave.

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