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The Limit: Chapter 1

Mordecai Morgan is minding the shop in Brick Lane when a classy lady walks in.

...He raised his eyes without moving his head and got a surprise. She was as classy as an Elmore Leonard. In her thirties and beautifully put together. He could see that because the summer dress she wore was cream silk. The sun shone through it to provide a silhouette that made the bits catch in his throat...

The lady has one of his old cards, "Mordecai Morgan - Demolition'' and she needs help...

Story teller Peter Lacey is one of the very best in the business. Read his novel The Limit week by week, chapter by chapter, in Open Writing.

Maudie discovered a Desmond Bagley, a Jack Higgins and a Gavin Lyall in the cardboard box of paperbacks.

Tommy the Tout had paid thirty bob for the books, a boilersuit, two jumpers and a pair of running shoes.

Tommy was careful with his money, which was why his second-hand shop was full of tat and his wallet full of tenners. Maudie, who looked after the retail side of things on a casual basis, knew that the shop was a sideline and that Tommy's main income came from other sources. He knew better than to ask what.

The pay he received wasn't much but it was cash in hand that supplemented his giro and the work was hardly demanding. He got to live in the bedsitter upstairs and to sit in a deckchair at the back of the shop, and had the pick of the paperbacks that came in.

He liked thrillers, though after half a lifetime with little to do but read, he found he had read most of them. It was a bonus to find three that he either had not read or had forgotten. He turned over the last book at the bottom of the box and struck gold—an Elmore Leonard.

For a moment he felt a surge of happiness. Elmore Leonard was the finest thriller writer he had ever read. Classier than the rest. A real find.

He put the box with the other paperbacks under the sign that said 15p each and returned to the deckchair. It was in its lowest reclining position and his back gave a twinge of complaint as he eased himself into it. It was a bit of a bugger getting in and out but the angle suited him because, with a cushion to support his head, he could hold the books far enough away for his eyes not to hurt.

He settled in and examined the covers, reading the blurbs on the back. The Jack Higgins now struck a chord so he put it under the chair as a last resort. Which of the others to read first? He would save the Elmore Leonard; it would be something to look forward to, a treat. He would start with the Desmond Bagley.

The cushion slipped when he reached into his cardigan pocket for the bag of Bombay bits he'd bought from the Paki shop next door, and he readjusted it, put a handful of bits in his mouth and opened the book. When he was halfway down the first page, someone stepped into the open doorway and blocked the sunshine.

He raised his eyes without moving his head and got a surprise. She was as classy as an Elmore Leonard. In her thirties and beautifully put together. He could see that because the summer dress she wore was cream silk. The sun shone through it to provide a silhouette that made the bits catch in his throat.

He coughed.

What the hell was she doing down Brick Lane? If the shop had been up Hampstead she could have confused it for trendy junk, but this was Tower Hamlets and Tommy the Tout's emporium couldn't be mistaken for anything other than what it was.

The cough made her turn towards the sound and she removed a pair of tinted glasses. She obviously hadn't seen him when she had come in and he was embarrassed that she might discover he had been looking through her dress.

He put the books on the floor and tried to get up as though it didn't hurt. Vanity, at his age. He stood up and the Bombay bits scattered on the floor. He ignored them and walked towards her.

"Yes, madam? Can I help you?"

Christ, he sounded like a floorwalker at Harrods. But she was a madam. Certainly not a luv. Even better looking, now he was closer, than he had first thought.

She hesitated and looked past him into the darkness of the shop.

"There's nobody else." He smiled. "I'm afraid I'll have to do."

At least smiling was something he could do with confidence. His teeth had been well looked after and even improved, at not inconsiderable expense, by some of the finest dental surgeons in the prison service.

"I'm sorry." She smiled back and it was a bonus far greater than hunting for paperbacks. "Are you Tommy Ainsworth?"

"Sorry. The Tout is out." He grinned to show it was a joke and she grinned back.

"He's only here first thing for an hour or two. Can I take a message?"

She was looking at him more closely and he leaned back imperceptibly to focus his own gaze. The gold was flash but impressive. Among the chains around her neck was one that held a small gold horn of plenty. It stirred a distant memory.

"Actually, it's not Mr. Ainsworth I'm looking for. I'm looking for Mordecai Morgan. I was told he was an associate of his."

"I'm Mordecai Morgan. Although most people call me Maudie, these days."

She tried to keep the disappointment from showing but he saw it in her eyes. He needed only a nudge and he would remember. He began to sweat because he was almost sure he would not want to remember.

The accent was not London. It was an accent that had been around, travelled, but that still had a touch of the north. She held out a card and he remembered.

"You gave me this some years ago. A long time ago."

Too long ago?

The card brought back memories. It said: Mordecai Morgan, Demolition, and gave a number at the Bow end of Roman Road.

He had first had them printed as a joke but the joke stuck and helped his reputation thirty years before. This must have been one of the last he had had printed and given out. Sixteen, seventeen years ago?

He remembered. And he wished he hadn't.

"I'm Toni Rossetti," she said. "You knew my grandfather."

He nodded.

"The Dealmaker," he said.

He felt old and foolish and did not want to ask why she had traced him after all this time. It would not be for a reunion party. There could only be one reason.

"You found me with that?" he said, giving her the card back.

"Yes." She smiled, as if she had come to terms with her disappointment. "It wasn't difficult. You're still well known."

That, at least, was true. The East End cherished its characters. If it had nothing else it had pride in its identity and folk lore. Old ladies still talked of Ronnie and Reggie with affection. "Lovely boys. Thought the world of their mum."

"It's been a long time, Toni."

He held his hands away from his sides as if to say look at me. He wished he had shaved that morning and had washed properly and wondered if she could smell last night's drink seeping from his pores. Sometimes, he could smell it himself.

She looked round again, but this time as a diversion, to avoid getting to the point. She had, perhaps, realised there no longer was a point.

"Do you work here?"

"I help out. Tommy's an old friend. From racetrack days."

She nodded and looked away again.

"Why are you here?"

He had to ask it. He had never tried to avoid the truth, even when it hurt. Even now.

She met his eyes.

"I need help. You once said . . ."

"I know."

They looked at each other sadly.

"I thought perhaps you could advise me."

It was a nice shift in emphasis. A face saver for them both. And perhaps he could.

"If I can."

"Is there somewhere we can talk? Maybe go for a drink?"

He would have loved to have gone with her for a drink, to have walked into the pub with a classy lady on his arm and have everyone stare. It would have revived his reputation. But not looking like he did.

"We can talk here," he said, and walked past her to lock the shop door and change the sign.

He also had no money to take her for a drink. He had 46p in his pocket.

He led the way to the office at the rear. It held an old-fashioned rolltop desk, two dining-room chairs and a Formica table with an electric kettle, mugs and a jar of cheap instant coffee. He pointed at the jar as she sat down but she shook her head.

"No thanks."

"I don't blame you. It's bloody awful."

Perhaps they should have stayed in the shop. The atmosphere was close in here and he became worried about his body odour. He opened the back door into the yard and remained standing, staying as far away as was polite.

"You were a lovely girl, Toni. You've become a beautiful woman."

She laughed.

"Hard work and bad marriages have kept me trim."

"Marriages?" He emphasised the plural.

'Two. One here and one in America. I'm currently single and intend to stay that way."

"How long did you live in America?"

"I still do. Portland, Oregon. I came back to help my brother, Mario. He's in hospital."

Maudie raised his eyebrows.

"What's wrong? Something serious?"

"He was run down by a car outside his club. Deliberately. That's why I'm here."

He pulled the other chair towards him and sat down.

"You'd better tell me all about it."


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