A mirror image of the almost-full moon, glistening on the river, gave the chill dusk a feeling of calm. Pulling her scarf up to her chin, Stacie Monroe quickened her pace across the Millennium Bridge. Long gone were the hordes of commuters returning home from the City. Occasional couples and lone pedestrians like her made their way to and from the theatres, bars and clubs on either side of the Thames. The city's roar had fallen to a hum.
"My round, I think!" declared Albert as he raked the poker chips towards himself. His fellow players grunted resentfully, and one or two even left before he could buy them a consolation drink. Eddie grinned to himself as he lined up several glasses on the bar in anticipation of Albert's largesse.
An impressive sprint got Mickey Bricks onto the bus as it pulled away from Trafalgar Square, heading for Tower Hill. He sank, slightly out of breath, onto a seat and offered his ticket to the conductor. A quick glance at his watch showed he was on time, and he turned on his iPod to pass the journey more enjoyably.
The coolest evening of the autumn. Hyde Park's leaves were crunchy underfoot as Ash Morgan strode along the southbound paths. Hands in pockets, he was deep in thought, and almost absentmindedly hailed a cab as he arrived at Kensington Road. Having given the driver the address of Eddie's bar, he settled back, still pondering on the evening ahead.
"So the gang's all here then, eh?" Eddie said, delivering their drinks to the table.
"Well spotted, Sherlock," retorted Ash. "Now piss off."
With a roll of his eyes and a tsk, the bartender disappeared, and Stacie laid a hand on Ash's arm. "You all right?" she asked, looking worried.
"He's fine," Mickey answered instead. "He's just …"
"…hacked off because some people think they can read my mind." Ash drank deeply from his glass and almost slammed it down on the table.
"Come on, Ash, that's no way to welcome an old mate," said a familiar voice from behind Stacie's shoulder. She whirled round, gave a squeal, and leapt up to throw her arms about Danny, who looked as if he'd just stepped out of a Florida holiday brochure. Now it was Ash's turn to cast his eyes upwards.
"'Scuse me," he muttered, squeezing past Stacie and heading for the bar. Mickey followed him.
"Come on, Ash…" he began, putting a comradely arm round Ash's shoulders, only to have it shaken off.
"He disappears for years, comes back here, and it's like nothing ever changed!" seethed Ash. "Stacie made the effort to come home; why couldn't he have done the same? Had to wait until he was deported and didn't have any bloody option. There's no way he can just muscle in and be part of the crew. We've got used to him not being here, he's used to operating under his own steam, and into the bargain he'll expect to be in charge again! No chance." So saying, Ash finished his second scotch and made off into the night, Mickey's protestations unheeded.
"What's the matter with him?" Danny had made himself comfortable in the booth, with Stacie snuggled close. Albert raised a surreptitious eyebrow in Mickey's direction.
"He's just gone out to get some fresh air," was the reply, and Albert motioned Mickey away from the table. They found a quieter spot in the furthest part of the bar.
"I take it Ash isn't as thrilled as Stacie at the return of the prodigal?" asked Albert.
"Not quite, no." Mickey fell silent, at a loss as to how to remedy the situation, or even what to say.
"I'm not sure how to handle him when he's like this. Perhaps it's better to simply let him go for now, blow off some steam," suggested the elderly conman.
Mickey pursed his lips, shook his head, and said, "It's been at the back of my mind ever since I got back from Australia: what will happen if or when Danny returns? I suppose I'd convinced myself it wouldn't ever be an issue, so I never thought it through." He sighed. "And that's left me totally unprepared for Ash's reaction. It's so out of character for him."
"Still waters run deep, Michael," said Albert sagely. "Leave him be for the meantime. More to the point, where are we going to put Danny?"
Mickey groaned and buried his face in his hands. "Can you imagine the scene if Ash gets back to our place and finds Danny's got his feet under the table there, too? I don't even want to think about it." He sat up straight, determined now. "He'll need to go somewhere else for the moment."
"Shall you tell him, or shall I?" enquired Albert, rhetorically.
In the end, Danny seemed quite breezy about being politely told there wasn't a place for him in the grifters' current living arrangements. Stacie frowned, but caught Albert's subtle shake of the head, and said nothing. Mickey went out of his way to find a good hotel where Danny could use whatever dodgy method of payment his heart desired, without being detected. That done, and with an impatient Eddie tapping his feet and sighing pointedly, the foursome climbed the steps into what was almost morning.
A few hours later, Mickey was rudely awakened from a sound sleep by the ringing of his phone. Groggy and dry-mouthed, he reached for it and croaked, "Hello?"
"Mickey? It's Danny. Er…I'm in a spot of trouble. Can you come and meet me?"
Mickey's sleep fled and he looked at his watch. "What? Why are you…? Never mind. Where are you?" He flung on a t-shirt and jeans, hopping to the front door while still lacing up a trainer. Stacie appeared as he opened the door to leave.
"What's going on? It isn't even eight o'clock yet. Have we run out of milk or something?" she asked sleepily.
"Yeah, something," replied Mickey. "Won't be long." He shut the door as quietly as he could and went out into the street to look for a taxi.
Danny sat bolt upright in bed with the noise of hammering echoing round his room in the Excelsior. He rubbed his face to try and wake up from the dream.
"Police, Mr. Jenkins! Open the door!"
"What?! All right, I'm coming, I'm coming!" Danny padded across the floor in a daze and opened the door. Four policemen barged past him into the room, one of whom said, "Better get dressed, sir," at which point Danny realised he had absolutely not a stitch of clothing on. He quickly grabbed the things he'd been wearing the night before and put them on.
Meantime, the other three men were literally tearing the room apart. The hotel manager hovered anxiously in the doorway, obviously taking mental note of the damage being done. One of the police officers turned to the man who'd spoken to Danny and said, "Got something here, guv."
"You – stay there," Danny was told, and the four men huddled round a bedside table, apparently examining the underside of its drawer. Before you could say, "Sweeney," Danny had eased his way towards the door, slipped the manager a fifty pound note, and vanished downstairs. Lucky thing he'd left his wallet in his jacket pocket.
Danny rubbed his hands together and stamped his feet as he waited outside the riverbank café the gang sometimes patronised. He had gone in to try and buy some breakfast, but the owner remembered him and barred him on the spot. No appeal Danny could make for clemency was entertained, and he was reduced to buying a bacon roll and tea from a nearby snack van.
"Care to explain?" He span round to find himself facing a disgruntled Mickey.
A sheepish grin told the tale and Mickey gave a weary sigh. "You're hardly back in the country five minutes, and already you're in the merde," he declared.
"Eh? More like the crapper, I'd say, Mick. Never mind. Wot you up to?" He slapped his old friend on the shoulder as they walked towards the nearest bridge.
Mickey stopped in his tracks. "Whoa, just back up a minute there! It sounded like an emergency on the phone. Why the interest in what I'm up to?"
Briefly taken aback by this rebuff, Danny recovered his aplomb sufficiently to say, "Just interested, Mick, that's all – just wondering what you guys were up to. Why is that so bad?"
Despite his scepticism, Mickey grinned. "Because I know you, Danny, possibly better than you know yourself. What was so urgent that you had to drag me out of bed after barely three hours' sleep?"
"Ah. That. Well, I had a bit of an early morning alarm call meself, as it happens. Know that hotel you booked me into? It looks like someone else knew I was there, too. Got a visit from some cops at sparrow's fart and they ransacked my room. I managed to get away before they slapped the bracelets on me, but they'd found something interesting in a drawer. No idea what," he put up his hands in self-defence as Mickey was obviously about to ask what on earth the police had found that was so fascinating.
"Well, we'd better find somewhere else for you to stay, then. Give me a few minutes." Mickey turned away to make some calls out of earshot. The first one was to Albert. "Any sign of Ash yet? Oh good, that's a relief. Is he speaking to anyone? Just Stacie…all right, I'll see you later. Oh, and Albert – know any out-of-the-way hotels that would suit Danny? He's had some bother from the law this morning without even having to get out of bed."
Another call made, and Danny's new abode was arranged. "Right, let's get you settled," instructed Mickey. Danny seemed reluctant to move from his perch on the embankment wall.
"Isn't there any way I could stay with you guys?" He was like a wheedling, petulant child. Mickey groaned inwardly.
"Not for the moment, Danny. There just isn't enough space for one more – not even your good self. Come on, the Euro International Hotel awaits!" He led the way to the main road to look for a taxi.
"Bloody hell, Mickey, when you said 'Euro International' I was thinking lots of flags and a posh doorman…not this!" Danny stood taking in the view of a slightly crumbling terraced hotel in a less-than-salubrious part of west London.
Mickey managed to keep a straight face and reassured him, "It's the perfect place for staying under the radar. If you want the police to find you again, we can always get you into the Sheraton or somewhere like that…"
"No, no, it's fine!" Danny replied in an almost panicky voice. "Lead on, Macduff." He indicated for Mickey to go first up the hotel steps, but was met with yet more rejection.
"I promised Stacie I wouldn't be long. You make yourself comfortable, catch up on some sleep, and I'll call you later, OK?" Mickey answered, hailing yet another taxi.
"But I'm not tired!" Danny protested, following him to the kerbside.
"Go shopping for some new clothes then!" was Mickey's parting advice as he climbed into the cab. "Portman Street," he told the driver.
"That you, Michael?" called Albert as the door to their suite banged shut.
"It's me," confirmed Mickey. Albert nodded towards the dining table where Ash and Stacie were obviously deep in conversation. Mickey looked at them and sat down next to Albert, asking quietly, "Any idea what was the matter with him last night?"
"Nobody likes change," was the reply. "I noticed a definite downturn in his mood the day we received word of Danny's impending return. I thought perhaps it would just be temporary, but it seems to have gotten worse. I haven't had more than a grunt out of him today."
"Like you said, we'll just leave him. He'll snap out of it sooner or later." Returning to business, Mickey went on, "What's the word on the mark?"
"I wouldn't advise running with this one, Michael. The man has a nose like a bloodhound for trouble. He suspects everybody and trusts nobody. I think we should drop him, for now at least. If we back off for a bit it may have the desired effect – reverse psychology, if you will."
Mickey nodded in deference to his mentor's opinion.
"What's the story with Danny?" Albert asked, and listened carefully as Mickey explained. "Hmmm. That's very strange, particularly as he's only just re-entered the country. Sounds rather like someone was waiting for him, wouldn't you say?"
Mickey considered for a moment. "I'm not sure, Albert. Certainly I think he's been watched and targeted, but I don't know if he's been singled out because he was asked to leave America, or if it was just plain bad luck. I thought I might go back to the hotel and see if I can pick up any clues…"
"Let me do that. You need to stay here and try and mend some fences." Albert got up and fastened his jacket button. "I don't want to gain Danny at the expense of another member of the crew." He indicated Ash with a slight nod of his head.
"I'm not sure I want to gain Danny, period," was Mickey's long-suffering response, causing Albert to chuckle softly to himself as he left.