Penance – Chapter One

The cards in Albert's hands seemed to move effortlessly as the old grifter shuffled them. Although his were fingers gnarled and thickened by the considerable years that they'd been at work, each movement was as deft and precise as a surgeon's. The pack was well shuffled: now, with the same efficient movements, Albert dealt two cards each onto the table that lay between him and Sean. The younger man intently followed each move of the old con's hands with his eyes, a small frown of concentration pulling his brows together. Albert dealt the final card, set down the pack on the table, and relaxed back into his seat. He bestowed a benign smile upon Sean. "Away you go."

Sean frowned more deeply. He picked up the hand that had been dealt nearer to him and looked at the cards. "I bet… ten."

Without looking at his own hand, Albert responded. "Call." He picked up the pack again. "Here comes the flop." He burned the first card, discarding it, then dealt three cards face-up on the table between them: four of clubs, king of spades, four of hearts.

Sean gave the three cards a long look, then folded his arms. "Twenty."

Albert smiled, still not looking at his own two cards which remained face downwards. "Call." He picked up the deck again. "Let's burn and turn." He discarded one card, then dealt a fourth face-up onto the table: eight of spades. "Just two of a kind on the table."


"I hear the sound of confidence. I see your forty, and raise you…" Albert pursed his lips, laying one finger on his still unseen hand. "…forty more." At Sean's dubious look, Albert lifted his eyebrows. "Come on now, still only modest stakes."

Sean glanced at the two cards laying face-down under Albert's finger. "You're betting blind. You're just trying to bluff me."

"Only cost you another forty to find out," replied the older man equably. "Or if you don't want to take the risk, you can fold at any time…"

Sean grinned at this, and shook his head. "Call."

Albert gave an acknowledging nod, then took up the pack for the last time. "And down the river we go." He laid the final card face-up on the table: seven of spades.

Sean's chin lifted decisively. "Eighty."

"I see your eighty, and raise you another eighty." Albert sounded quite peaceable. Sean eyed him narrowly. "Okay. Call." He folded his arms.

Albert nodded at the younger man's hand. "It's showdown time."

Sean turned his cards over, obviously relishing the moment. King of hearts and king of diamonds. "Full house… Kings full of fours."

Albert nodded approvingly. "A very good hand." He let a small beat fall before adding, "But not quite good enough." He turned over his two hole cards: the ace and nine of spades. "Ace-high flush. My game, I believe."

"You what…" Sean stared at the hand disbelievingly, before falling back to sit limply in his chair, defeated. "Unbelievable!"

"Unbelievable that you still think you can beat Albert at poker, after all this time?" Mickey's comment issued from the other side of the room, where he sat at his laptop. "I'd say it was a classic case of someone failing to learn from history being doomed to repeat it."

"But he didn't even look at his hand!" protested Sean.

"Didn't need to," rejoined Albert, contentedly settling back in his chair.

"Because you were bluffing all the way through?" Sean's insistent query produced only a raised eyebrow from Albert and a chuckle from Mickey. "You were psyching me out and relying on me folding after the river!"

"An interesting strategy, but no, that wasn't the one I was following." Albert shook his head. Sean let out an exasperated breath. "Well, then you're not telling me you knew what was in your hand without even looking at it - " Another distant chuckle from Mickey and a broadly spreading smile on Albert's face made Sean abandon the end of his sentence, letting out a groan. "You did, didn't you? You knew what your cards were all along!"

"Being the dealer does lend itself to certain advantages," remarked Albert equably.

Sean groaned again. "I don't bloody believe it. I was watching you all the time. How do you do it?"

"We always said to you, watching Albert play cards'll make you go blind," advised Ash, from where he sat on the sofa reading the paper. "And it'll stunt your growth."

"Stunt my wallet, more like." Sean sounded disgruntled.

"If you can't afford to pay, you shouldn't come out to play. Speaking of which…" Albert took a moment to calculate. "That's two hundred and seventy pounds sterling you owe me. No cheques accepted by the house."

"Ah, come on Albert – give me a break!" Sean tried his most crestfallen wet-behind-the-ears innocent look. "I'm tapped out this week. On the slate till next time?"

Albert smiled again, his old gambler's eyes flinty. "No debts between colleagues. You know the rules."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah…" Sean dug out his wallet and gloomily counted out the notes, handing them over to the older man. "Emma's going to go spare. I promised I'd take her out on the town tonight as a birthday treat."

Ash grunted from behind his paper. "Her birthday was a month ago."

"It was, but I was a bit short then, only just managed to scrape enough together for some flowers and a card."

"Last of the big spenders…" Ash commented caustically.

"Yeah, all right – but I did promise I'd take her out for a posh meal and a decent night's clubbing! And now Albert's cleaned me out it'll be more like a Happy Meal and a few drinks down at Eddie's bar."

Mickey raised his eyebrows. "You really know how to show a girl a good time."

"Let me know when you plan on telling her your plans for the evening," grunted Ash. "I could do with a laugh, and watching big sis demolish you after you let her down again sounds like it'll be good value."

"Thanks for the sympathy, guys!" Sean sat upright, hands clenching in growing discomfort. Ash snorted. "Just tell us where to send the wreath."

As Sean opened his mouth to protest again, Albert held up a silencing finger. "Before you disappear completely into weltering self-pity about your impending and, I have to say, not entirely unjustified suffering at the hands of your sister… Spare a thought for her feelings." Sean paused, his mouth a round 'O' of interrupted thought. Albert tapped him on the knee. "Emma doesn't get many opportunities to have the attention she deserves lavished upon her, nor to enjoy that attention in the surroundings befitting her loveliness. It's probably been a long time since she last had the chance to enjoy a fine meal in civilised company, without it being part of whatever con we were running at the time. As well as being able to relax afterwards at whatever decibel-ridden overpriced den of musical iniquity the young folk of this city are currently favouring."

"Not to mention, bumping into that old flame of hers in Birmingham put her through a bit of a rough patch," added Mickey quietly.

"Right. I know." Sean was immediately and very visibly contrite, displaying the genuine affection he had for his sister. "I remember how down she got over that bloke. That's another reason I wanted to take her out somewhere decent tonight: give her a proper birthday meal, then go clubbing so she could let her hair down and forget about all that."

"Your brotherly concern is admirable," remarked Albert.

"Except now I've just blown nearly all the dosh I was going to spend on her big night out!" exploded Sean, reverting to panic-stricken woe. "And you don't all have to rub in the fact that I'm a crap brother, because I already know that!"

"Leaving aside for the moment the relative merits of your siblinghood, there's another possibility you may be overlooking," said Albert. "Namely, that although you lapsed and did indeed gamble away the money you should have mindfully been keeping safe for Emma's birthday outing, such is my regard for your sister that I will, on this one occasion - " the stress placed on these words was very heavy " – temporarily waive your debt and loan you back the money to enable your celebratory evening to proceed according to plan."

Sean stared blankly at the older man for a long moment. From behind his newspaper, Ash supplied a translation. "He's giving you back the two hundred and seventy quid."

"I'm loaning him it," corrected Albert distinctly, fixing Sean with a gimlet eye as he handed back the folded wad of cash. Sean did a double-take, then relief spread across his previously downcast features. "Oh. Oh!" He beamed at the older man. "Ah, cheers, Albert! You're a star!"

"Starry compliments aside, don't let it escape your notice that this is a debt merely postponed, not written off." Albert held up an admonitory finger. "I expect you to settle it in full before the end of the week."

"Absolutely! No problem!" Sean was already getting up and backing away, his features regaining their boyish charm as the dark clouds of difficulty were resolved. "I'll have it by Monday! Tuesday at the latest. Middle of the week at the outside."

"Mmm." Albert watched him retreat. "I have no doubt."

"Got to go, make sure everything's sorted for this evening…" Sean was all sunshine now, his face radiating the happy good looks that made him the team's charmer.

"Go. Give your sister a happy birthday." As the door shut behind the youngest member of the team, Albert let out a small sigh. "I must be going soft."

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be," remarked Ash from behind his paper.

"Setting a dangerous precedent, Albert," Mickey looked round from his laptop. "I don't think I've ever seen you write off a gambling debt before."

"I'm not going to make a habit of it. And just to set the record straight, the debt is not 'written off', it's temporarily postponed. I expect that money to be paid in full."

"Yeah, well…" Mickey started to close his laptop up, smiling. "I think you let him off easy."

"Sets a bad example." Ash folded his paper and tossed it onto the table. "Letting him get away with thinking you're a soft touch."

"I am not 'a soft touch', thank you very much." Albert's voice had taken on a note of irascibility. "At the risk of sounding repetitive, I'm not letting young Sean off from paying his debt. I am merely deferring it a few days."

"He won't see it that way." Ash shook his head. "Spun you a sob story and you bought it, hook, line and sinker. I'll bet that whole line about treating Emma to a birthday night out was just one of his tall tales."

"No, that part is true," said Mickey. "She mentioned to me this morning that Sean had promised her a mystery special night out. She was really pleased about it."

"Which is why I took the unusual and never-to-be-repeated step of temporarily cutting our young reprobate some slack," added Albert. "I have no compunctions about fleecing him, especially as it's such a valuable learning experience, but I would hate to be the cause of ruining Emma's special evening."

"So he was actually on the level about that, then?" queried Ash.

"Absolutely." Mickey nodded. "In fact, he was picking my brains for ideas a couple of weeks ago… What restaurant did I think she'd like, what did I reckon to this club. And then he sorted out everything: dinner reservation, VIP tickets to the dance club afterwards, limo with a chauffeur hired for the evening. He's actually put quite a lot of effort into it."

"How touching," said Albert. "My frosty heart is mellowing a little towards the young scamp."

"You won't be saying that at the end of next week when you're still two hundred and seventy sovs down," rejoined Ash. Albert contented himself with an answering look.


The working day over, the trio decamped to Eddie's for a relaxing drink. They hadn't been there long when Emma and Sean appeared by the bar, both dressed up for an elegant night out. They got drinks and sauntered over to the three at the table.

Ash looked Sean up and down. "Bit overdressed for Eddie's, aren't you?"

Sean grinned. "Just dropping in. We're heading to Orlando's at eight."

"Who's Orlando?"

Mickey leaned over. "Top restaurant in the West End. Two Michelin stars."

"What, they do car repairs as well?"

Albert took Emma's hand. "You look lovely, my dear."

"Thank you." She smiled him, then at the whole table, spectacular in a shimmering dark blue dress. "I don't often get the chance to dress up for my own fun, rather than to impress some mark. And now I'm getting a whole evening of being spoiled rotten, thanks to my little brother." She put her arm around Sean's shoulders and gave him an affectionate hug and quick kiss on the cheek. "It's a brilliant surprise, I didn't know until today what he was up to!"

"The master of deception," murmured Albert, giving Sean a sidelong glance. The young con artist coloured slightly under his colleague's gaze, but recovered with speed by raising his glass. "I'd like to propose a toast… To my sister Emma, the most gorgeous girl in London!"

The team chimed in with the toast, clinking glasses together. Sean continued, "And I know it's a bit after your birthday, but it took me a little while to organise things. So happy birthday, sis: you deserve the best." He smiled at her, a little self-conscious.

"Indeed you do," seconded Albert, raising his glass in a half-salute. Mickey nodded in agreement. "I hope you have a wonderful evening. You've earned a break."

"I plan to enjoy every minute," said Emma.

"Just watch out what they serve you up in this posh eaterie you're going to," advised Ash. "They don't half pile the extras on the bill in those places."

"Not my problem," grinned Emma. "It's all Sean's treat… So I'm going to start off with a bottle of champagne and some caviar! I've always wanted to feel like the glamorous lady in a Bond movie, and now I get a chance to do it."

Mickey leaned in close to Sean, speaking in a low undertone. "You have got enough money to cover the bill, haven't you?"

"Got it covered." Sean spoke back between teeth set in a determined smile. "Next birthday she might have to settle for pizza and Pinot Grigio though."

Before long, the siblings finished their drinks and set out on their upmarket evening, leaving their friends to the dubious pleasures of drinks in Eddie's company. The talkative barman wandered over to their table after Emma and Sean had gone. "Blimey, they look proper nouveau rich. Off somewhere on a job?"

"No. Pleasure, not business." Mickey turned back from where he'd watched Emma leave. He was discomfited to find he was more than a little envious of Sean's role as escort. Pushing the feeling to the back of his mind, he took a sip of his drink. "Sort of a belated birthday treat. Dinner and a night on the town."

"Oh, very nice." Eddie looked a little wistful. "Always fancied doing that meself one day. You know, take a nice lady to the Ritz, do a spot of dancing afterwards."

"That's nice." Ash spoke with such flat insincerity that only someone as constitutionally dense as Eddie could miss it.

"Yeah." Eddie sighed. "Course, finding a nice lady who could afford to split the bill isn't that easy."

As one man, the trio of con artists looked at Eddie, then at each other. Ash was the first to break the silence. "So… Whose round is it, then?"


Dinner at Orlando's had been a definite success. Much to Sean's well-concealed relief, it had left him with enough money to leave a tip large enough to look classy, with plenty to spare for the over-priced drinks at the fashionable club Mickey had recommended. The clientele was young and happening, the DJ knew his stuff and before long Emma was dancing the night away with a fluctuating crowd of attentive young blokes whom Sean knew she would have no trouble keeping under control. His sister seldom failed to attract attention, but she was savvy enough to enjoy the compliments without letting men invade her space. Unless she wanted them to, of course.

It was something of a relief to be out socialising and not working a con. After the scathing dressing-down he'd received from the team after he'd gotten disastrously drunk during a set-up, Sean had religiously stuck to mixers and low-alcohol lager when on the job. Being the youngest member of the London Five often felt like a tough gig and he knew he had a lot to prove.

Despite the fact that he and his sister had been headhunted by Albert back in the days when the old grifter was finishing his short spell in prison, Sean knew he hadn't risen in the esteem of the other three as quickly or as high as Emma had. It wasn't to do with her looks, either, although Sean still suspected that Mickey was more attracted to Emma than his occasional glances betrayed. In the long cons they'd worked together, Emma had proved her worth to the team: more than that, she'd showed she had courage. Any successful con artist had to have the guts to pull off a scam, the ability to brass their way through a tricky situation as well as the quick wits to turn things around in the face of the unexpected. Emma was smart, she was gutsy, but above all she was loyal to the team, and that had won her a place in the affections of the three older men.

Sean, on the other hand, was burdened with inexperience and youth, two things that definitely didn't win him any brownie points. The main thing he had going for him was that he was a quick learner… And he was lucky enough to be learning from some of the best. Standing at the bar at the back of the club, Sean smiled ruefully into his empty glass. Despite having to put up with being lowest in the pecking order, he wouldn't have missed out on working with Mickey, Albert and Ash for any other gig in town. He was getting an education second to none, even if he sometimes had to pay for the privilege.

A hand squeezed his shoulder and he looked round into his sister's beaming face. "Hey, you!" she cried to make herself heard through the music. "Fancy a dance?"

"Yeah, sure!" He gestured at the bar. "Want another drink?"

"Dance first!" she insisted, taking him by the arm and leading him through the crush to the dance floor. As the DJ cranked up the volume Emma began to move with the music, her face alight with pleasure. Sean let the music carry him too, following her lead, riding the happiness she so obviously felt. Well I may not be a top grifter yet, but at least I managed to be a decent brother for once. Not too shabby.

Ten dance tracks and one shirt starting to stick to his back later, Sean mimed 'knackered' at Emma and nodded towards the bar. They retreated through the crush of dancers and he propped one elbow on the counter, waving a folded twenty at the bar staff. "What do you want?"

"Bacardi and diet coke, lots of ice." Emma was smiling. "God, I'm having such a great time! I don't know when I last danced so much."

"Yeah, you look like you're enjoying it." He passed the drink to her and took a gulp of his lager. Emma laughed. "I'll pay for it tomorrow… But what the hell, I don't get to do this very often. It's a brilliant birthday treat."

"Glad to be of service," Sean replied.

"No, really." Emma put her hand on his arm. "I mean it. You've given me a fantastic night out. No-one's taken this much trouble to be so nice to me in a long time… And I really, really appreciate it." She leaned forward and wrapped him in a hug.

For a moment, brother and sister held each other in a close embrace. When they pulled apart, Sean felt a little overwhelmed by his sister's demonstrativeness, but inwardly a small glow of pride warmed him. "Well... I'm glad you're enjoying it. And I'll bet some of those blokes you've been dancing with tonight would be happy to give you a repeat experience."

"Well, I don't know about that. Most guys today seem to think treating a girl to an all-you-can-eat curry is a great night out. I can't see them wining and dining me at one of the most expensive restaurants in London!"

"Not too embarrassed to be seen out with your little brother, then?"

Emma laughed. "You scrub up all right." She tweaked his collar playfully. "Up for another dance yet?"

"God, no." Sean rolled his eyes. "I need at least fifteen minutes to recover. And, um, speaking of recovery… I need to visit, the, uh…"

"I'll watch your pint," she assured him. "But don't be long!"

Threading his way through the crowd, Sean found his way to the Gents. Typically for such a swanky club the toilets were high-tech and bathed in a medicinal blueish light that Sean imagined the club owners probably thought was stylish but which actually had the effect of making everyone look as though they needed a holiday somewhere sunny.

He was rinsing his hands when he felt the unmistakeable sense of being watched. Years of being a con artist had sharpened his senses, even when under the influence of three lagers, two bottles of wine and several glasses of champagne. Keeping his head downturned, he let his eyes flicker disinterestedly up into the mirror, as if checking out his reflection. Reflected in the mirror was a man standing beside the air hand dryer, his dark eyes directed at Sean. He was tall and wide-shouldered, wearing a well-cut casual suit: as he moved his hands in the drying air a gold ring caught the light and glinted briefly. His gaze met Sean's reflection: but rather than averting it or turning away, he continued to look steadily at him in the mirror.

Sean dropped his own eyes and stepped away from the sink. The man hadn't looked familiar, but it was never a good feeling being checked out. Making a living by conning people meant you had to blend into the background, and Sean worked hard at doing just that unless a job demanded him to play a character. He decided to take a calculated risk: turning abruptly, he stepped up to the air blower next to the one the stranger was using. Using a carefully neutral expression, he turned his head slightly and gave the man a casual, we're-just-blokes-who-happen-to-be-in-the-loos at-the-same-time nod. Closer up, he saw that the man had neatly-trimmed hair, a vaguely eastern European look. The man's eyes narrowed slightly: Sean had the uncomfortable sensation that his vaguely matey nod had somehow worsened the situation. Maybe he thinks I'm trying to pick him up. Bloody hell.

Returning his gaze stiffly to the front, he hastily scrubbed his hands together in the clammy airstream, then beat a quick retreat back to the main room of the club. Emma was waiting for him at the bar. "About time! You were gone ages."

"Yeah." Sean grabbed his pint and had a swig to calm his nerves. Glancing back towards the toilets, he was discomfited to see the dark-eyed man standing at the edge of the room, looking at him through the crowd. He turned to face the bar, frowning down at his drink.

"You all right?" Emma nudged him.

"I'm fine." He smiled at her, trying to put out of his mind the feeling of having the creepy guy's gaze boring a hole between his shoulder blades. He didn't want to spoil his sister's party mood. "You off for another dance?"

"Too right." She put her empty glass down on the bar counter. "You coming?"

He shook his head. "Think I peaked too early. I'm good here."

"Lightweight!" she laughed. With a quick kiss on his cheek, she was gone back into the crush of the dance floor and swiftly lost from view.

Sean sipped his lager and took a surreptitious look at his watch. 3 am. He looked at the wildly dancing masses in front of him and let out a small sigh. Maybe I am a lightweight. He was impressed by his sister's apparently unlimited energy, but he had long ago recognised that he didn't share it.

A man moved in to the bar next to him, close. Sean obligingly shifted up to let him get a space to attract the bar staff's attention, but the man reached out and gripped his arm, leaned in to speak close to his ear. "My boss would like to speak with you."

Sean mentally re-ran the words through his brain, wondering if lager and dance music had conspired to create what he thought he'd just heard. "What?"

"My boss. Over by the pillar there. He would like to speak with you." The man shifted slightly, nodding at a seating area further back from the dance floor. Sean saw the dark-eyed man from his encounter in the Gents sitting there. Uneasy, he looked back at the heavy-set man standing beside him. "Uh… I don't think I want to talk with your boss, if that's okay."

"No. Not okay."

"Look, mate, I don't want any trouble. I'm just here to have a good night out – and I was planning on leaving soon anyway - " Sean was quickly deciding a tactical retreat was in order. Whatever this was about, it didn't seem good.

"No. You come talk to my boss." The big man's left hand was still holding Sean's arm, but his other hand slid out from under the edge of his jacket, just below the level of the bar. Revealing a very business-like, very sharp-looking knife. "You come talk to him now."

The roar of music and laughter and shouting sweating dancing drinking Londoners blurred away into a distant background as Sean looked at the knife. He felt his heart pause; then begin to pound. Thud. Thud. Thud.

The grip on his arm was quite strong now. He couldn't help staring at the knife: then, when he realised he was doing it, transferring his gaze wide-eyed to the man's face. "What – What's this about?"

"My boss would like to speak with you," repeated the man.

"Yeah. Yeah." Sean could feel his heart beating so hard it almost shook his voice. "I, uh, get that. But, you know, I really don't think I want to talk to him. I really don't. And, uh. You. Flashing a knife at me. Is a bit fucking unnecessary. Besides which." He breathed in as slowly as he could, willing his heart to calm down. "You start anything with that in here and the security will be all over you."

The man shook his head slightly. "Very busy in here. Security won't see anything, not quick enough to help you." He turned the hand holding the knife, making a movement that was small but so swift that it blurred. The point of the knife was suddenly resting against Sean's stomach, just pressing through his shirt. "I can move quickly."

Sean took a single, very shallow breath in. "Yeah. You really can." He swallowed.

"You come and talk with my boss now." The man nodded towards the rear of the club again. "He doesn't like being kept waiting."

"Mhm." Sean gave a half shake of his head. "You don't surprise me." He stepped away from the bar, conscious of the man moving close in behind him. As he moved past the people queuing for drinks, Sean gave one very quick sideways look towards the dance floor, checking to see if Emma was visible. She wasn't.

As they drew near the chairs by the pillar, the dark-eyed man sitting there gestured to an empty seat. Moving as deliberately slowly as someone does when they have a man with a knife watching them, Sean sat down. The man had chosen a darkish corner, screened from much of the club by the pillar behind them. The noise was slightly less here, and the man only had to lean forward a little to be heard when he spoke. "I thought I recognised you. Now I'm sure."

Uh oh. Sean elected to try to brass things out. "Well, I'm really sorry, but I don't know you. So this is obviously a case of mistaken identity."

The man smiled humourlessly. "No. You see, I never forget a face. Never. And I remember yours. The fact that you don't remember me, is, frankly, irritating… But given time, I think your memory will serve you better than it is right now." He pointed at Sean. "It's been nearly eight years and you've no doubt led a full and busy life since we last met, but it's an encounter I haven't forgotten, let me assure you."

Eight years? Sean's brain began frantically back-tracking to days he'd happily begun to let go of: less-than-sunny memories of times before working with the Five, when he and Emma scraped by working short cons together… And when he'd worked a few even dodgier deals solo, on the fringes of the down and dirty world of petty criminality. Learning tricks from the people he'd run into, how to make a profit without being too careful how you tidied up the loose ends afterwards. Before he'd started learning the real con artist's craft, of which one important credo is: Don't pull cons on people who carry grudges and settle scores.

The man was still gazing at him. "I will give you a little help. New Cross, 2003. Cigarettes. A shipment coming in, a payment made in advance."

Sean felt the memories slide into place. The man watching him smiled. "Ah. I think I see the glimmer of recognition."

Sean looked at the dark-eyed man in front of him. "Uh… Jacob?"

The man actually laughed. "Hah, yes. Jacob. That is my first name, which I went by then. Now it is Jacob Rovin." The laughter vanished, replaced by a look of cold menace. "Mr Rovin to you. You swindled me out of five thousand pounds."

Sean remembered: remembered the elation of pulling off what had seemed like a huge take in those days of scrabbling for a living. He saw Jacob Rovin in his mind's eye, younger then but seeming older with a beard, less well-dressed, not the successful – businessman – he appeared to be now. He dragged himself back to the present with an effort. "Any point in me saying that I feel really, really bad about it?" He cast about for useful strategies. "Or that I can pay you back?"

Jacob smiled thinly, sitting back in his chair. "The money, you will definitely pay me back, yes. But it's not just a question of money." He steepled his fingers together. "You, small-time cheat, took from me more than money. You took from me respect. I lost the respect of the men I was dealing with. I was humiliated. The money, it took me some time to replace it. The respect, it took much longer. And I never forgot you. You, smiling, charming, oh-so-obliging local boy only too willing to help out a fellow 'trader'. Your smile I remembered. For a long time."

Sean heard the barely-restrained anger in the man's voice. Fuck me. How is it I can con people out of half a million and they get royally pissed off, but I stick one Eastern European wannabe bad boy for five grand's worth of cigarettes and I make an enemy for life? Being very careful of how he spoke, he said, "So what you're saying is, you're angry with me. I understand that."

"Oh, I don't think you do understand, smiling boy. Not yet. But I am willing to bet you will understand. Given enough time."

"So… Uh." Sean swallowed. "What could I do to… uh… convince you that I do understand? And, uh… Make amends?" He was proud of the last phrase. He'd heard Mickey use it on more than one occasion. It was classy. And somehow, keeping things classy felt like the only way of stopping this nightmare situation teetering over into much worse things.

"You will come with me. Spend a little time in discussion." Jacob gestured towards the exit of the club. "Now."

Inadvertently, Sean's eyes flickered towards the bar. To his horror, he saw that Emma had taken a break from dancing and was standing there looking around, trying to spot her brother in the crush. Jacob saw his gaze shift and smiled. "Or maybe you'd like your lady friend to come too? She is someone special?" He half-raised a hand to signal to the big man standing behind the chairs.

A painful tension gripped Sean's chest. He had to catch his breath before speaking. "No." He forced himself to keep the panic out of his voice. "She's no-one special. Just some girl I picked up in here." He drew on every ounce of acting skill he'd learned from his time with the London Five. Faking sullen reluctance, he put a touch of whine into his voice. "I mean, she's bloody cost me enough, the drinks she's had me buy her all evening…"

Jacob regarded him with amusement. "Don't tell me the cheat has been cheated?" He gestured at the bar. "Better go and make your excuses, then. Make it quick." As Sean stood up, Jacob held him for a moment longer with his voice. "Don't try leaving without us. My friend here will be very close behind you. And I'm sure you wouldn't want your lady friend involved in any… unpleasantness."

Turning away, Sean began to walk to the bar. He sensed the step of Jacob's knife man a couple of paces behind him. As he drew close to the bar, Emma's roaming gaze found him and she grinned and waved. Managing to grin back, he walked the last few steps to the bar, feeling his heart hammering behind his ribs again. Fucking hell. Got to do this right. Got to get her out of here, before they realise she's my sister. Got to get her away from that no-neck with the knife.

"Hey, where've you been?" Emma took a gulp from a glass, and shook her finger at him reprovingly. "I had to buy my own drink."

"Sorry, gorgeous," Sean replied. He turned sideways on at the bar, interspersing himself between his sister and the knife-carrying man at his back. "Listen, you feel like heading off now?"

"You really are a lightweight," she grinned at him. "I could dance all night!"

"Too much lager," he smiled in return. "Feeling a bit… You know."

"Oh, poor you." She chucked him under the chin. "Can't hold your drink!"

"Yeah, don't I know it." Please, sis. Do what I tell you, just this once. "Seriously though – you OK to get out of here now?"

She groaned. "Party pooper. But come to think of it, you do look a bit out of sorts."

"Huh. Yeah." He managed a wan look, keeping his hand flat against the bar top to stop it from shaking. "I'll be better for some fresh air, I reckon."

"Okay…" She downed the rest of her drink. "Let's make a move, then. We can always pick up a bottle on the way."

"Yeah. Sure, we can do that." Thank fuck. "The limo'll be waiting just outside." They were starting to move to the exit. Get her into the limo, then make some excuse. Get her away.

"I'll get my coat." Emma dove off towards the cloakroom.

The knife man spoke behind Sean. "You don't try to leave with her."

"I'm just gonna see her to the car. I'm not going anywhere," Sean retorted stiffly, eyes on where Emma had disappeared. She came back into view quickly, shrugging on her coat.

The hired limo was parked a few yards away from the club entrance, close to the kerb. Conscious of the knife man still dogging his footsteps a few paces behind, Sean walked Emma to the limo and opened the door. Once she'd got in, he deliberately stepped back. Putting his hand to his jacket, then to his forehead, he pulled a face. "Bloody hell, I'm more trollied than I thought. I've only gone and left my wallet in there."

"You twit," she reprimanded him. "Go and get it!"

He shook his head. "I think I put it down on the bar. Hopefully some light-fingered club-monkey hasn't walked off with it." He made a self-deprecating gesture. "Look, no reason for you to hang about out here in the cold waiting for me to sort this out. The limo's already paid for – you head off, I'll follow on in a cab when I've found my wallet."

"What? Hang on – what if some light-fingered so-and-so has walked off with it? How will you pay for a cab?"

"I'll ring you when I get there and you can pay him." He managed to smile at her, desperately willing her to comply. For chrissake, just go. "You didn't think you were getting a completely free evening, did you?"

"You muppet." She shook her head, half-angry, half-laughing. "Look, I'll just wait - "

"No, there's no point. I'll be right behind you." Please, for fuck's sake get out of here, sis. He smiled again, feeling the sweat cold on his back, and pushed the door shut. He bent down to the driver's window. "Take the lady home." The driver nodded and started the car. Stepping away from the limo, Sean gave a still somewhat-puzzled Emma a cheery wave, then retreated back across the pavement. The car pulled away and his sister was gone. Sean let out a breath.

The voice of the man with the knife sounded close behind him. "You come with my boss now." Sean looked around: the man gestured at another car parked some way down the road. Sean's stomach tightened. "Come where?"

"Not your problem." The man gestured again. "You come now."

Sean looked at the club entrance: at the departing people, the disinterested security. Trying to make a run for it was a no-brainer: with all that lager and a heavy meal sloshing around inside him, he'd probably make about ten yards before this hired muscle caught up with him. And there was that knife to think about.

Sean felt sick. Don't think about it. Just put one foot in front of the other and do what you're told, buy yourself some time to work out how to get out of this. You got Emma away, safe and sound, so that's a result.

They had reached the car, an expensive top-of-the-range Mercedes with dark-tinted windows. The back door opened. "You get in," said knife man. Sean did as he was told. The man got in beside him, causing Sean to scoot along on the back seat. The door shut and the car began to move. Jacob Rovin was sitting in the front passenger seat. "Don't forget your seat belt, smiler."

Sean fumbled with the belt, slightly reassured by this apparent concern for his well-being. "So, uh… Where are we - ?"

The punch to his head from the man sitting beside him was as unexpected as it was violent. Sean slammed sideways against the car window, then slumped loosely against his seat belt, unconscious. From the front seat, Jacob spoke. "Good. I hate a back-seat driver."