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The Limit: Chapter 10

..."Toni, what you were talking about this afternoon. You were talking about a war. I don't know anybody big enough to have a quiet word with the Dysons, to warn them off. So, if you don't sell out, you're left with a war. That's nasty. Is that what you want?"...

Ageing hardman Maudie is assured that Toni Rossetti really does want to protect her business interests in Blackpool - evfen if that involves violence and goinhg to the limit.

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

Maudie had been nervous while waiting in the shop for her to return. He couldn't be sure if he looked halfway presentable or simply a pathetic echo of his past. Jack the lad with a bus pass and an invite to all the senior-citizen bun fights.

Compared to how she had first seen him that afternoon, the suit and shirt were a definite improvement. But then, an undertaker's body bag would have been an improvement.

The Mercedes pulled up outside and he walked towards it, as self-conscious as a first date.

Toni looked twice and then again. The trouble had been worthwhile.

"That's some transformation," she said.

"It had to be. For both our sakes." He directed her to drive towards Bow. "It's a tandoori house. The food's good, the place is clean and at this time of night there'll be no drunks sleeping in the pappadums. Where are you staying?"

"One of London's faceless hotels. Indifferent service and high rates. America has spoiled me. I think bad manners must be a British tourist attraction."

She wore tailored trousers and a cashmere sweater, both black, and a lot of gold. She looked good and made him feel good. He was in a limousine with a beautiful woman. It was as if he were reliving the high times of thirty years before.

They were the only customers at the New Delhi Tandoori Restaurant but the barber who had recommended it was right. It was clean and the food was excellent. When they had eaten and coffee had been served, he began.

"Toni, what you were talking about this afternoon. You were talking about a war. I don't know anybody big enough to have a quiet word with the Dysons, to warn them off. So, if you don't sell out, you're left with a war. That's nasty. Is that what you want?"

"I don't want it, but if there's no other way, then that's what I'll settle for."

He mulled over his next question before asking it.

"Why? I mean, women usually run a mile from violence. They don't like it. You feel loyalty to Mario. But a war? It's not ladylike."

"Don't get confused about me being a woman, Maudie. I know all about roles and how I should behave. I learned it at an early age. I was the first born and my father wanted a son. I loved him very much and he loved me but I grew up feeling guilty I wasn't a boy."

She lit a cigarette and he waited for her to continue.

"The world, his world, revolved around men. He was father and godfather. Women were there to bear children and wear black. Then he died. What did I do? I went looking for a substitute. I got two beauties.

"They were okay, in their way, but I learned that role-playing didn't make a man any stronger than a woman. Physically, they were stronger. But not in any other way.

"I've known a lot of men since. None seriously. None have made me want to know them seriously. Most men are defective when you get past their image. Their emotions and perceptions are two-dimensional. They can be pretty poor substitutes for women. So forget ladylike. I'm a person and I'm not going to be pushed around."

"That's quite a speech," said Maudie.

She laughed.

"I'm sorry if I sound bitter. Usually I try not to let it show. I'm not a feminist. I like the attention I get from men. But the roles I play, I now play for me. I got fed up of being used by men a long time ago. All they ever gave me were bruises, inside and out. Well, not the Dysons. Not this time. This time, I'm going to do the screwing."

He drank some coffee and pushed his cup and saucer around on the starched tablecloth with one finger. He stopped pushing, lay the hand flat on the table and tapped softly with his fingertips.

"You don't know a lot about me, Toni."

"What I know, I like. Isn't that enough?"

He smiled.

"It's a nice thing to say but it's not practical. Not for a hard-headed businesswoman." He raised his eyebrows. "Business person. I want to tell you about me."

"All right."

"Eighteen years ago you were a girl. Impressionable. You were good for my ego. I think that probably you got a wrong impression. I was never a white knight. I was always a villain.

"I meant what I said about your grandfather. He was a likable man. And about Jack Spot. There were loyalties in those days, but that was in the forties and fifties. Let me start at the beginning."

He told her about his upbringing, his graduation in crime from Borstal to military prison to jail. About his association with the London gangs, and working for the Krays. He told her enough for her to understand, without detailing the full extent of what he had done.

"Five years with The Firm. Not a peaceful time. But once you were in, it was hard to get out. Ronnie finally went round the bend and I was bloody relieved when they were put away. He had a death list a mile long. It's a pound to a penny I was on it."

The coffee had gone cold. He waved to a waiter and ordered another plus a brandy. Toni declined.

"After that, I was involved in capers that went wrong. They were violent. I shot a security guard. He was doing his job, I was doing mine. I was a limit boy. That means that once I started I would go the limit. No matter what it took. I've damaged a lot of people. Most of them deserved it. I've seen people killed. I am not nice to know."

She lit a second cigarette from the first. Her face was pale and serious.

"Why the confession, Maudie?"

He drank the brandy and sipped the coffee.

"When I came out of prison the last time, the only thing I wanted was never to go back. I could think of nothing worse. But there is something worse. Sitting in a deckchair in a second-hand shop, reading paperback books is worse. It's like being dead. That's all I'm doing there. Waiting for death."

He drank the rest of the brandy.

"I don't want to wait any more. You've put me back in a suit and a clean shirt and I like it. I was excited this afternoon at the thought of seeing you tonight. I haven't been excited in eight years. Jesus Christ, my biggest thrill is finding books I haven't read among the junk Tommy buys. Now hear me out before you turn me down, but I want to go north with you.

"I can do a job for you, I know I can. I'm sixty-three. Sixty-four in September. But I've got that feeling in my gut again that makes me want to go the limit. I can't do anything else. I do my trade or I become a drunk. I've had a bellyful of being down and I want to work again. I want the excitement again. I want life again."

Toni said nothing. She continued to watch him through the smoke of her cigarette.

"This job is important to me," he said. "Because you came looking for help and because it's my last chance. I won't let you down, Toni, because if I do, I'll be letting myself down.

"I've worked with the best. Or the worst. Depends how you look at it. I understand mobs and violence and protection. I've done security and I've been an enforcer. The Dysons are playing at it. A couple of Archies. I can take them. Any way you want me to. Will you let me?"

She stubbed out the cigarette and called to a waiter for the bill.

"I'm paying," she said. "I told you. It's business."

The waiter took the money away and they stared at each other.

She said, "How does ten thousand pounds sound? Plus expenses?"

He felt the prickle at the back of his eyes and blinked to control it. It would be a hell of a thing for a limit boy to cry with joy. He held his hand across the table and she took it. They shook.

"Toni, I'd do it for free."


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