And so, finally, another update. Sincere apologies for the stop-start nature of this fic; I'm sure it's losing me readers!
A quick summary of the story so far so that you don't have to read back over 12 chapters...
The crew are conning Billy Forgan, a shady businessman who deals in property but has a sideline in people-smuggling and prostitution. Ash has been working as the roper, Emma is the inside man. This has been foced on Mickey due to the nature of the mark and the con, but he's unhappy with it. Emma has struggled with her role as a prostitute, finding that it brought up unwanted associations for her. Sean is playing the part of a Russian Mafia gang-member who wants to become part of Forgan's smuggling ring. Ash's ex-wife, June, has died and Stacie has returned from America to support Ash... and possibly more, if he'll have her!
Now read on... :-)
RINGTONE: 1812 Overture
Sean hastily scrambled for his phone. "Dumenko."
"Mr Dumenko, this is Malcolm Linford. I'm moving a cargo to Amsterdam on the fifteenth and there'll be some space available on the return trip if you can fill it."
"Excellent, Mr Linford. You shall send me details of your exact location and I shall utilise the space you have available for me. I will have my men meet you to load the shipment and pay your fee."
RINGTONE: Traditional Bell
"Mr Forgan, this is Dumenko. I have dates for shipment. If you have cash available, I can supply the items you require."
"Cashflow is no problem, Dumenko. Let me know the time and place and I'll be there. Call me when you have the shipment aboard and we'll discuss terms."
TEXT-TONE: Simple Beep
CALLER: Little Irish Psycho
MESSAGE: Shipment on move. Need to meet. Your place. Call me. F.
"In your dreams, you nasty little... Hello, is that Mr Forgan? Hi, it's Chrissie. Yeah, that's great, I'm so excited! Sure, the twelfth is fine. 9pm, at the house? See you there!" Emma ended the call with a flourish and turned off her phone. "All set up," she said, tucking it away into her bag.
"You'll need someone with you," Mickey said. "You don't meet him there alone."
"Let's leave that conversation till tomorrow," Emma gestured at the sober group standing a few yards away. "This is what we need to focus on today."
Mickey nodded and walked over to stand by Ash. "Ready?" he asked quietly.
Pale-faced in his dark suit, Ash glanced up and gave a tiny affirmative shrug. Flanked by Mickey and Stacie, with Albert and Sean walking immediately behind them and Emma guarding the rear, he led the way into the church.
"Set 'em up, Eddie!" called Emma, and the watching crowd cheered encouragingly as the barman filled a succession of gleaming shot-glasses with hard spirits.
Over at the bar, Albert leaned toward Stacie. "Are we sure this is sensible?" he enquired.
Stacie sighed, looking over to where Ash and Emma were facing each other across a table, surrounded by a raucous group of grifters and minor criminals. Mickey stood behind Ash and Sean was at his sister's shoulder. Between the two combatants were ranked a double row of full glasses, and Eddie was already filling another set in readiness for round two. "Well, it's either this or everybody goes home and Ash shuts himself away on his own and broods. I think this is probably the lesser of two evils. Besides – I've got fifty quid on Ash to win!"
Albert chuckled quietly. "Well, I guess it's partly my fault anyhow. I'm the one who told Ash that Emma could drink him under the table when I introduced them..."
Stacie opened her mouth to reply but was interrupted by the approach of the only other entirely sober individual in the room. The Reverend Nicholas Faulkner had removed his dog-collar and consequently looked more like a wrestler than a man of the cloth, his blue shirt strained tightly across his barrel chest. "So, this is how grifters do wakes, is it?"
"This is what we call 'a damn good send-off'. A wake is a lot more... buffet oriented," Albert said.
"And June deserved a damn good send-off." Faulkner heaved his bulk up onto the stool beside Stacie and cast an appraising eye across the contest, which was now well under way. "Who's taking the bets?"
"Fancy a flutter, Nick, or are you going to pray for their souls?" enquired Albert, his eyes twinkling.
"The two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive."
"I knew there was a reason you got on so well with Ash!"
Faulkner gave a deep laugh. "Someone has to keep an eye on you lot's moral welfare – I might as well make a small profit from it where I can!"
"Is it true you met Ash at school?" Stacie eyed the big man beside her doubtfully. That prompted another burst of laughter, loud enough that several startled heads turned in their direction.
"Oi, keep it down over there!" Ash directed tipsily.
Stacie blew him a kiss and turned back to the vicar. "So...?" she prompted.
Faulkner was still grinning. "I wouldn't call it school, exactly. When I was a very young curate, part of my pastoral care work included weekly visits to help run a sports session at the local Young Offenders unit." As Stacie began to giggle behind her hand, he added: "He was a few pounds lighter in those days... mind you, we both were." Here, he cast a rueful eye down at his ample torso. "He wasn't a bad footballer, as I recall. And he always gave me my cigarette packet back after he'd nicked it and smoked a couple... and after he got out, we stayed in touch and had the odd pint now and again. As you do, with Ash."
"As you do," Stacie agreed fondly.
"So – d'you want to book the wedding in now, or let me know?" The wicked twinkle in Faulkner's eyes deepened as Stacie blushed and stammered. "You could do worse," he told her, smiling, before getting to his feet with a purposeful air. "Now then. Where's this chap I need to see about a flutter?"
Relieved at the change of subject and eager not to catch Albert's eye, Stacie called Eddie over and ordered a cafetiere and a plate of chocolate biscuits to soothe her nerves. By the time she'd listened to Eddie fretting about breakages, and how grifters never bleeding paid for anything, and what a bunch of freeloaders were in tonight, not but what June didn't deserve a good send-off but it didn't come cheap, and who was going to get the bill, he'd like to know, she had recovered her equilibrium, and even felt able to go across to the central table and cheer on an ever-more inebriated Ash.
The drinking game went on for some time - the two participants were well-matched and in good practice - but ended abruptly at around one in the morning when Emma suddenly turned pale, lurched from her seat and rushed off to the loo. Ash rose to his feet in an exaggeratedly careful fashion, received his applause with the air of a monarch greeting his adoring public, and then tilted gently to the left, his eyes sliding shut. Mickey made a quick grab and managed to guide his friend onto a nearby banquette from which steady snoring was immediately audible.
Amidst cheers and good-natured laughter, bets were settled and final toasts drunk, and by around two o'clock Eddie's Bar was back to its normal state of occupation. Its proprietor stared around wearily at the accumulated detritus and sticky table-tops and sighed in a martyred fashion. "Sod this for a game of soldiers – I'm cleaning up in the morning. Come on, you lot!" he added, loudly. "Unless you want locking in with the heating off."
The more sober members of the crew poured Ash onto the back seat of the black cab, propped a still-slightly-green Emma by the open window opposite and made the journey home to the music of Ash's snorts and whistles.
Stacie sat alone on the balcony, letting the breeze cool her face and remembering the hundreds of times in the past she'd sat like this. There was something she found comforting about the constantly-shifting soundscape of the city and it never failed to soothe her when her composure was ruffled. A quiet, familiar footfall sounded behind her, and she smiled. "Hello, Mickey," she said without turning her head.
"Hello," he said, and she could hear the answering smile in his voice. "That was quite a night."
She looked teasingly over her shoulder to where he was leaning against the patio door. "I'm surprised you remember any of it," she said. "I think Albert and I were the only sober souls in the place by midnight."
Mickey walked round and sat in the chair at her side. "I'm not even slightly inebriated," he assured her. "I just didn't want Ash to think I was keeping too much of an eye on him."
Stacie laughed, but she knew he was telling the truth. His eyes were bright and steady, even at this ungodly hour.
"I'm glad I caught you alone," Mickey continued. "I've been meaning to ask if you were staying on. Because if you are, I could really use your help with this con."
She gave a rueful nod. "I'm staying," she said. "I ran halfway round the world trying to escape from my own feelings, but in the end, here I am, back again." In answer to his questioning look she drew a slow breath and went on: "After I got over you, and after Jake, I swore to myself that was it for me – I was sticking with friendships. Less complicated. But it just... happened. It was different from anything I'd felt before; there was no agonising, no melodrama. I never realised love could feel that way – warm, like being wrapped in a blanket and kept safe."
The questions dissolved from Mickey's eyes as she explained, to be replaced by slowly-increasing delight. "You... and Ash?"
"I think so... I hope so." Stacie drew her knees up to her chest and gazed out at the city. "But what if I'm wrong, Mickey? We've never talked about it; I just assumed. What if he doesn't feel the same way, and I scare him off and ruin our friendship?"
Mickey put a comforting arm round her shoulders. "You won't get it wrong, Stacie. You know him better than anyone. Just give him a little time, and you'll know."
She rested her head against his shoulder in silent gratitude and they sat together, listening to the muted roar of the London night.
Behind them, unseen, Emma stared in misery at the two dark heads resting so naturally together. They looked right as a couple in a way she feared she would never experience. She wasn't sure what she'd ever been thinking; Mickey clearly didn't want to complicate his life by hooking up with a woman who had commitment issues and was ten years his junior. She didn't blame him. Closing her bedroom door behind her she retreated to seek solace in sleep.
Luckily for Emma, Ash and Sean were so hungover the next morning that everyone simply assumed her symptoms came from the same source – which they did, partly. The crew sat in their familiar semicircle, with Mickey prowling the carpet at centre-stage looking bright-eyed and enthusiastic on three hours sleep. Emma hid behind her dark glasses and tried not to snarl at everybody.
"My feeling is that everything's about to snowball," Mickey said. "We're going to have to pull all the strands together and make sure we're ready to put the whole plan in place at short notice. I'd like Ash to go with Emma..."
"That won't work," Sean broke in. "I need Ash with me. Sorry," he added as Mickey, cut off in mid-flow, frowned irritably, "but there's no way I'll get everything finished there without the main man."
Conceding the point, Mickey looked around the group, thinking aloud. "I can't go, he knows me as Roscoe and we've cut that partnership off... Albert?"
"I'd gladly be there," Albert said, "but Mrs Carmen will be without her escort if I do. And there's always the possibility I could be needed in the closing stages, which might queer the pitch."
"I'm not sure what cover story you'd give him, either," Ash put in. "'Ello, Mr Forgan, this is my granddad..."
Sean grinned as Emma and Albert both turned to stare pointedly at the fixer.
"I can go," Stacie suggested. Every head turned toward her and she shrugged in vague embarrassment. "It seems the logical thing," she went on. "No problem coming up with a cover story for me; he'll be expecting to see other women there. And I can easily fit it in with the other things you've asked me to do."
"I'm not sure... this guy's not safe, Stacie."
"Mickey, I've been working casinos in Los Angeles for the last three years with only one of Danny's plans for a safety net. I'm quite sure that Emma and I can cope with one mark."
"Even if he is a little Irish psycho!" Sean put in unhelpfully.
"Emma?" Mickey turned to look at the younger woman.
It was Emma's turn to shrug, though in her case she was buying herself a couple of seconds thinking-time. "It's the best solution," she said, hoping that she didn't sound too reluctant. It wasn't Stacie's fault that she'd dashed Emma's half-formed dreams.
"Okay." All the reluctance Emma had tried to conceal was clear in Mickey's tone, but they all knew that Emma was right; it was the best solution. That decision made he squared his shoulders and looked at each of the crew in turn. "So, where are we up to...Sean?"
"Planning the best route."
"Documents, currency, accommodation."
"Pulling a few strings to help Stacie's interview go smoothly."
"That all sounds in order." Mickey surveyed them all again. "I think that's everything we need to do."
Stacie cleared her throat. "Eddie did suggest we might like to help him tidy up from last night..."
"Like the man said," Sean broke in firmly, "that's everything we need to do!"