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The Limit: Chapter 5

Maudie had been a hardman in his day—and no one knew better than he did that his day was past.

But he has pledged to help Toni Rosseti. It's time to go see the Chinaman.

To read earlier chapters of Peter Lacey's crime novel please click on The Limit in the menu on this page.

A hundred pounds.

She had given him a hundred pounds.

The money lay alongside him on the bed. He had locked up the shop and gone upstairs. He had felt unable to face either Desmond Bagley or second-hand customers for the rest of the day.

He had a lump in his throat. It was one of those expressions that sounded silly, that people use when they couldn't make words fit. But he really did have a lump in his throat.

The back of his eyes still prickled with the tears but they had only lasted until he became aware of them. They had been replaced by a feeling of emptiness.

Who was he kidding? He wouldn't be able to come up with anyone or thing that might help Toni Rossetti. He had been out of circulation too long and the power now lay with the Maltese, the Italians, the Chinese and the gangs over the river. The London crime barons were settled in respectability on the coast, at Southend and Leigh-on-Sea. Even the Jew Crew commuted from the seaside.

His own reputation in the East End had been reduced to that of a character. Young tearaways gave him a nod of acknowledgment and the current faces had a joke and bought him a drink. At least they still treated him with esteem and not as a dosser.

A hardman in his day—and no one knew better than he did that his day was past.

Years before, he had paid the same dues to his seniors. When he was one of Jack's top boys and, later, when he had worked for the Krays.

People had moved to give him space at the bar and he had made a point of being polite to the hardmen of a previous generation. They were fellow tradesmen and if they were over-the-hill, well, it happened to everyone sooner or later, if you didn't cop the big one first.

So he had bought them a drink and exchanged a word that let the others know — the petty thieves and the straights — that they were different. That the willingness not simply to face violence, but to charge it head on, made them a breed apart.

The few words, the few beers, the respect he had given all those years before had been payments in a pension fund. And now he was a pensioner hardman, gone soft with age and drink.

He picked up the money. The notes were crisp and new. He was sick at himself for accepting them. His pride had wanted to refuse but his poverty had made his reactions lethargic. It was a long time since he had had a hundred pounds.

The situation was ludicrous. He had only met Toni Rossetti on a handful of occasions and that had been a lifetime ago. It was his fault that she had built false expectations.

He had let her believe that he had been more important than he was and that Jack Spot Comer had still been a man to be feared. By then, Spot had retired to sell furniture and he had been a member of the Krays' firm for five years.

But, at the time he met her and impressed her, it had been safer to talk about Spotty than the twins. People who talked about the twins got their legs blown off in 1967.

He got off the bed and looked at himself in the full-length mirror on the wardrobe door.

Christ. What must the girl have thought, seeing him like this? At least he could improve his image before he saw her again. Maybe salvage something, like pride.

He went down to the shop and took from the rack the dark blue suit that he had noticed when it first came in. It was nice gear, hardly worn and it almost fitted. The style was conservative and hadn't dated and the material had a fine stripe.

He tried it on in front of the wardrobe. The jacket was all right but the trousers were an inch too big at the waist and two inches too long. He got out the Quality Street tin that held needles, cotton, buttons and the paraphernalia of sewing, and got to work. Needlecraft had been a useful prison skill.

When he was satisfied with his tailoring, he shaved and went out and bought underclothes, a white shirt and a pair of black shoes. He was careful with the money and spent twenty-six pounds, realising only after he had left the shoe shop that his priorities, apart from the price, had included toes for kicking. Old habits.

It had been a long time since he had actually taken a proper bath. He had got into the habit of having a whore's bath—a body wash at the kitchen sink—when it became necessary, and sometimes not even then. It needed a special reason to take a proper bath, and there had been few of them in his life in recent years. But now he had a reason.

The bath was grubby but he ran the water deep and hot and made it sudsy with half a packet of Daz. He soaked in it and imagined that it made his back feel better. When he got out and towelled himself dry, he touched the memories on his body for the first time in an age.

A knife wound in his left side, razor cuts on his left arm and right shoulder, and the bullet scar on his left thigh.

He had packed his early life with good times, he had told Toni. They had been, too. There was no other feeling match the exhilaration of battle. It may have been a madness but it had been a special kind of madness.

People had stepped aside, women had been available, he had always had money and friends. He had never been able to understand straights: how they could motivate themselves to get up and go to work each day, be content to settle down with a girl from the next street and bring up a brood of kids.

A life of snot and hire purchase had never appealed to him except, perhaps, in the middle period of his seven stretch. He had wondered then, briefly and in depression, whether it might not have been better to have had a family.

He had come out of the depression and realised that, for him, a family would not have worked. He was a loner, he had told himself, who lived on the edge. He would always be a loner.

That had certainly been true since his release. Prison had sapped his self-belief. He had served his sentence, one day at a time, the only way to survive, and had come out to find that life could no longer be lived the same way. It was a young world and he was fast approaching old age and did not know how to stop it happening.

The speed of time passing frightened him. He could no longer live on the edge for the fear of returning to prison. He had dropped into apathy and a world of old paperback books for self-protection. He had been hiding from reality for eight years.

He ironed the creases out of the new shirt and dressed with care. The only thing from the past that he wore was a dark blue knitted tie. It was silk and still bore the Bond Street label of its maker.

He checked his appearance again in the wardrobe mirror. The improvement was dramatic and he couldn't stop smiling self-consciously at himself and winking at his embarrassment. But there was still something wrong. His hair. It was grey, wispy and too long.

There was time to get it cut.

He straightened his shoulders and felt the tingle in his stomach. Empty and light.

There was also time to see the Chinaman.


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