“I don’t like you, Shepherd, but I trust you.”
Danny Malone had walked into my office without knocking. He was standing on the other side of my desk, with a face like a yard of bad road and his neck in a whiplash collar. Six feet four tall and at least two thirds of that wide. He was a genuine monster.
Fifteen years ago, I had helped take him down. Hard as nails and seriously disturbed, he left the Special Crimes Unit squad room with his belongings in a cardboard box, swearing to get even with me. The last time I’d heard of him, he was in the bodyguard business, working for a local captain of industry with an inglorious disregard for straight dealing, protocol, and compliance. But then due diligence was never Danny’s forte either. He had not delivered the pounding he had promised me, and right now he looked as if he had stumbled into a rigid steel joist.
I stared at him.
“Car accident,” he offered.
“I’m not wondering about your welfare,” I said.
“No hard feelings though?”
“I’ve got the nightmares down to one or two a month.”
“I don’t do violence anymore.”
“Not since you took Eddie Winston’s top set out with a pair of rusty pliers.”
“That was then.”
He seemed to think that was explanation enough. It wasn’t.
“And this is now,” I said. “Take your proposition and leave.”
He responded by sitting down in one of my client chairs, clearly in no mind to consider my request.
“I want to hire you, and I can pay,” he said.
“I don’t want your money.”
“Maybe now. But it probably didn’t start out that way.”
There was a beat. Malone took a moment to measure his reaction to the insult. The right-hand corner of his mouth drooped, the eye above it narrowed – in historical terms, the prelude to an act of extreme brutality. I slid my chair back three feet. Malone locked his eyes onto mine, satisfied he could still frighten the shit out of me.
“Give me ten minutes of your time,” he said.
I decided I could extend him that much courtesy, especially if the alternative was a month in traction. And if I could drive the conversation, at least to begin with… I asked him what he did for a living these days.
“Whatever my employer asks,” he said.
“And he is?…”
“Gerald Gaghan. At least he’s the boss of the firm. They specialise in -”
I interrupted Malone. “I know what they do.”
Gaghan Nash hired muscle. Legal muscle. Acted as an agency for High Court Enforcement Officers – lawfully sanctioned bailiffs on speed. If A has a county court judgement against B for anything from £600 upwards, and is unhappy with the way the County Court Bailiffs are working, he can instruct an HCEO to take it on. They are enforcers authorised by the Lord Chancellor’s Office and work as freelancers or for private companies. Anyone called upon to assist them, even the police, must do so. Chasing down debtors, reclaiming property, evicting squatters… it’s all in a day’s work. They have the right to break into a property with whatever force they deem necessary and stay there until they have reparation. Inevitably they get thumped now and then, as the face in front of me bore witness, but in this age of privatised menace, what’s the odd knock here and there. I recalled that Gerald Gaghan had actually attempted to hire me on a couple of occasions.
“How is your boss?” I asked.
Malone grimaced. “Devious bastard. No sense of right and wrong.”
That was choice, coming from an experienced body-breaker like Malone. I wanted him out of my office. I stood up. He did too. Four inches taller than me and with his knuckles close to the floor he looked terrifying. Then he offered a sentence which changed the whole conversation.
“Word is, nobody’s getting anywhere with the murder of this Alfie Barnes kid.”
I sat down again.
So did Malone. And beamed across the desk at me. At least, with his version of a beam. It was only slightly less sinister than his ‘ready to pound me into the carpet’ look.
“I heard he had a problem tying his shoes and he talked to his socks.”
I took Malone by surprise. Reached across the desk, grabbed his jacket collars with both hands, pulled him out of his chair, then pushed down and slammed his forehead onto the desk top. I hauled him upright and let go. He fell back into the chair, which tipped over and deposited him on the floor. I moved around the desk. Malone rolled over and looked up at me. He couldn’t see straight and was having trouble focusing.
“Jesus…” he groaned.
He tried to lever himself up onto his elbows. I put my foot on his throat and let it take my weight. He gurgled, choked, and lay back on the carpet. There was no wound on his forehead, but the skin was beginning to discolour, and if we stayed as we were for a while we would be able to watch a lump growing.
“Tell me about Alfie.”
Malone swallowed, tried to breathe, and shook his head. I took my shoe off his Adam’s apple, moved back to my desk, reached for the phone and picked up the receiver.
“Maybe you’ll talk to the police about him.”
Malone found his voice. “Call them and I’ll say nothing. Fuck all.”
I looked at the malice in his eyes.
We had a stand-off. I ignored the phone and sat down behind my desk. From there I couldn’t see Malone, but I could hear him gurgling. Which was accompanied by a long groan as he rose into view, got to his feet and began to sway. He shuffled backwards across the office, reached behind him, closed the door and leaned against it. He was temporarily out of commission and far enough away to give me time to react if he pulled himself together. He raised his right hand and began massaging his forehead.
“Christ,” he moaned. “I’m going to look like the fucking Elephant Man in a couple of hours.”
He straightened his body, stood upright and took a step towards the desk. I stood up too, prepared for something of an onslaught. Malone flapped his right hand as if he was attempting to wave away a wasp.
“I haven’t the strength,” he said. “Can I sit down again?”
I nodded and pointed to the chair on the floor. He ignored that and sat down in the other client chair. I ignored it, too. It seemed that what Malone did next was the thing to focus on. He took a deep breath and began prodding at his forehead again.
“What do I look like?”
He looked like Lurch from the Adams Family. I couldn’t resist telling him so and prepared for a reaction. Instead, he grinned. Almost a real grin this time.
“Listen, Shepherd,” he said. “I know a couple of people Alfie Barnes was hanging out with.”
“And who are they?”
Malone shook his head without thinking of the state he was in and yelled in pain. He slouched in the chair, his head lolled back and he closed his eyes. I took advantage of the hiatus, moved around the desk and righted the other client chair. He looked up at me as I stood above him. Slid upright in his chair, slowly and carefully. Lifted his head enough to look straight into my eyes. Neither of us blinked. I waited for him to speak.