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Authors: Malcolm Mackay

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General

The Night the Rich Men Burned (6 page)

BOOK: The Night the Rich Men Burned
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Everyone else seems like they know the rules. Know how all this works. They feel like the only two first-timers. They’re not, as it happens, but that’s how it feels. Not that it matters. This is exactly what they pictured. Girls everywhere, and willing. Not exactly enthusiastic, but they’re doing their jobs. If they want to get paid, they have to keep all the men at the party happy. That now includes Glass and Peterkinney. Being in a world where others exist to satisfy you is intoxicating.

This is where natural ebullience begins to pay off. They took a seat at a table that only had two other men at it. They were both at the other end of the table, on the other side, with two young women. Older guys, don’t recognize either of them. Took about four seconds for Glass to start looking for women. He doesn’t have a lot of experience with them. Neither of them has much. No experience at all with the kind of experienced women here. But that’s what should make it fun. You’re in a room full of women whose job it is to say yes.

Took him about five minutes to spot two alone. Went over and talked to them. Talked them back to the table. They’re not pretending to be thrilled about being there. That’s because they’ve done these parties before. They know the kind of person you should go for. First off, you want someone very drunk. Someone so drunk you’re almost certainly not going to have to do any work that night. As long as you keep them happy, you get paid. There’s no guideline on what you have to do to make them happy. Happy is all that matters. A drunk guy can be happy with his clothes on, because he’s too drunk to get them off. Glass and Peterkinney are not drunk. They’re also young, which is bad. The inexperienced ones are the worst. They think they can do whatever they please. Live out any gangster fantasy they have. They have less understanding of manners.

The girls have sat next to each other, the more talkative of them sitting next to Glass. Peterkinney now has two bodies between him and the girl he’s guessing is supposed to be his. He’s the patient type. He’ll let Glass spin whatever yarn he’s concocted first.

‘I mean, okay, we don’t have a lot of experience,’ Glass is saying to the girl, ‘but when you have a start like we’ve had, that doesn’t matter. I mean, look at what we’ve done.’

‘What have you done?’

‘Well, I can’t tell you that, can I,’ Glass is grinning. ‘I hardly know you. Yet.’

Peterkinney’s wincing. Glass has always been terrible at talking to women. Pretty bad at talking to people generally when the pressure’s on. Always comes over a little desperate, very rehearsed. In moments like that, Peterkinney’s reminded that his friend just isn’t that bright.

‘How about we hit the dance floor,’ the girl is saying. ‘We can get to know each other better there.’ A smart way of saying, let’s spend time together without you talking.

The yes that comes out of Glass’s mouth is so filled with enthusiasm, Peterkinney laughs. Glass is getting up quickly from the table, but it’s the girl who’s leading the way down to the dance floor. She knows the routine. She knows that Glass doesn’t. He’s a dumb kid, trying too hard to impress. One of so many kids learning to be a gangster from bad movies. She’s left her friend behind with Peterkinney, but neither of them is the talkative type. Or the dancing type, it seems. Sitting there, with two empty chairs between them. Peterkinney occasionally sneaking a glance, hoping the girl will be glancing back. She never is.

Must be the best part of ten minutes now since Glass went dancing. Still down there, putting all sorts of effort into looking cool for his girl. Truth is, most of the men are older than Glass, most of them are either pissed or off their face on something. He may just be the coolest dancer out there. All relative, obviously.

Peterkinney still hasn’t spoken to the girl, and it looks like he never will. Another man has just walked past Peterkinney, over to the girl. Standing at the side of her, his back to Peterkinney. It’s a big back, that’s as much as Peterkinney can decipher. Tall fellow, broad shoulders, short hair. Sort of fellow you don’t want to pick a fair fight with. You can guess his occupation from that, presumptuous as that might be.

The big fellow is pulling out the chair that Glass’s dance partner was sitting in. He’s leaning close to the silent girl and saying something to her. Too quiet to hear over the music. She’s looking back at him. Peterkinney’s just tall enough to see her face over the slouching man’s shoulder. She looks unhappy. A little frightened perhaps. She looks like she doesn’t want to be a part of anything the new arrival has brought to the table. She’s saying something to him, nodding her head back towards Peterkinney.

Doesn’t matter that she’s sat there and ignored him since Glass and his girl went dancing. Doesn’t matter that she has no more enthusiasm for him than she has for being set on fire. She’s obviously scared of this guy. That makes Peterkinney take notice. Maybe not enough notice to help her, mind you. He might only be nineteen, but he’s a smart nineteen. The kind that knows how to avoid trouble, by and large. But when the big guy turns round and looks at him with that ugly, beaten face of snorting contempt, it seals the deal. The damsel has herself a potential saviour.

‘You’re with her?’ the big guy’s saying.

A slight pause. The big guy is too dumb, drunk, high and dumb a second time round to notice it. It’s indecision. The girl recognizes it. There’s a pleading look on her face. Yeah, she gets that look now. Where was that ten minutes ago? Anyway, he’s helping. Helping because, smart as he is, he can be vicious too. That little streak that needs to be let out once in a while. Like now.

‘Yeah, I’m with her.’

Big guy’s turn to pause. A nose that’s been broken more than once. Lips that have been burst. The puffed and ugly look of a man who can’t say no to a good fight. A slow smile spreading across his face. The smile he gets when he’s thought of something clever. A smile he doesn’t get often.

‘So why are there two chairs between you then, huh? Two fucking chairs. What for?’

‘Our friends were sitting there,’ Peterkinney’s saying. His voice is loud, has to be over the music. But it’s steady, and his expression is calm. He feels calm, as a matter of fact. Dancing with danger, and he’s not nervous. He has the moves to keep up. ‘Now they’re dancing.’

But the big guy is still grinning. Sitting between the aspiring couple, turning in the chair to leer at Peterkinney. ‘I been watching since your mates went down there,’ he’s saying. Slurring his words and nodding his head down the three steps to the dance floor. ‘You ain’t said a fucking word since then. Neither of you has.’

‘You ever been in the sort of relationship where you don’t need to talk all the time? Where you can just be happy to be together?’ Peterkinney is asking. There’s smugness in the tone, even when shouting. ‘Course you haven’t, a guy like you. I feel sorry for you.’

The big guy’s not going to sit there and take that. You’re a big guy, and you work as muscle. The only thing you have is reputation. You let people make fun of you and get away with it, what have you got left then? You’re soft muscle, and nobody’s going to pay good money for that. So he’s standing up and he’s glaring at Peterkinney. Ready to make this a fight. His first instinct, every time.

‘Come on, get up,’ the big guy’s shouting. ‘Come on.’ Shouting so loud people are looking. Loud enough to be more than a regular shout.

Peterkinney’s looking up at him. Smiling. Not planning on getting up. He wants to sit where he is, try and force the big guy to back down. But it’s not up to Peterkinney.

The big guy is lurching forwards. A big boot crashing into the side of Peterkinney’s chair, a hand shoving him on the shoulder. Tipping him and the chair sideways. The big guy stumbling with the effort, but getting what he wanted. Peterkinney sprawled on the floor. It’s embarrassing, but it’s no more than that. Getting caught out by the big guy. Being face down on the floor, everyone looking. It’s a humiliation, not a hurt. Humiliation doesn’t keep you down.

Peterkinney’s getting to his feet. The big guy is turning to look at the girl, grinning at her. She’s stony faced. No change there then. She thinks her rescuer has lost the fight already. Peterkinney’s getting to his feet, slowly. Considering his options before he picks the right one. Another new situation. You can handle it any number of ways. Laugh it off. The girl is nothing to him. Why should he take a risk on her behalf ? But then it happens again and again. People see you as a guy that can easily be tipped off his chair. A guy that can be pushed around. No, don’t want to be one of those. Seen what happens to them. That’s not a life Peterkinney’s going to accept for himself. Won’t get him where he wants to go. You could try and bluff it. Talk the talk, play it out and hope it never turns nasty. Nah, any smart person will know you’re a fraud, and it’s the smart people you need to impress. You have to take the fight. Accept it, win it.

So now, in the second split second since he stood up, Peterkinney is thinking strategy. How do you win a fight you shouldn’t win? This guy’s bigger. Tougher. Definitely more experienced. If this is a fair fight, Peterkinney loses. So it can’t be a fair fight, obviously. That means a weapon. None to hand. Create one. Only option. Might not be popular in a place like this, but anything’s better than being humiliated by this moron.

Peterkinney’s turned to face the big guy. Smiling slightly at him. Keeping it smug. Let him think that Peterkinney isn’t nervous in the least. He is a little nervous now, but knows he should be more nervous. This could go very wrong, but that’s okay, because he’s decided it’s still the right thing to do. He’s standing beside the table, taking a casual glance at it. Picking up a champagne glass. Not his. Someone must have been at the table drinking it before they got there. Holding it casually in his hand for about half a second, then slowly bringing it down against the edge of the table. When it breaks, more of the glass falls away than he expected. Enough left to constitute a weapon. Enough left to intimidate.

The big guy is looking at him. Still grinning, but it’s an uncertain effort now. The silent girl’s eyes have gone wider. There’s noticeably less movement around the club. People are watching. The people nearest them turning first, then the rest turning to see what everyone else is looking at. The key, having smashed the glass, is to not take any more initiative. Make sure people think you’re using it only in defence. Otherwise you look like a nutter, and people blame you instead of the big guy.

‘Why don’t you fuck off,’ Big Guy is saying. Still smiling, still uncertain. This moved out of his control real quick. Not used to someone else escalating matters like this. Smashing the glass was his kind of move.

Peterkinney’s about to say something when a figure moves between him and the big guy. It’s Glass. Pushing out his chest, standing on his tiptoes and still only reaching Big Guy’s chin.

‘Why don’t you fuck off instead,’ he’s saying. Sounds childish. The little guy trying to be the big hero, but there’s more to it. Looking to throw himself in the middle of the fight, sure. Also looking to stop Peterkinney from using that broken glass. Protecting his friend from himself, as much as this big lump.

‘You’re a pair of fucking idiots,’ the big guy is saying, emphasizing
pair
. Already looking for a way out. Trying to make it clear to everyone in earshot that it’s two against one. That a man of his standing shouldn’t have to bother with this sort of thing. Trying to make a withdrawal look like a victory.

‘They’d have to go some to be as big an idiot as you are, Fraser,’ a voice is interrupting.

Peterkinney and Glass turning. Looking at the middle-aged man at the other end of the table. Standing up, watching the conflict. He looks angry. He looks important. That’s enough to silence all of them. Balding on top, a middle-aged spread. Short fellow, good suit, takes more care of his hair than he should. Nothing much to look at, frankly. But there’s a look on his face that straddles the border between angry and bored. The look of a man who doesn’t like his night out being interrupted by those less important. A look that says he’s used to people doing just exactly what he tells them. He’s telling Fraser to back off.

Fraser, obviously the big guy, is looking at him too. Just staring back. Not saying anything. Leaving it too long. Anything he said now would sound too considered. Taking a step back. Trying to stare down the more important man, but not willing to open his mouth. Now turning and stepping down to the dance floor. Peterkinney and Glass are watching him go, walking along the edge of the floor to the exit.

As soon as he’s gone, Peterkinney is turning to Glass. Nodding a thank you, getting a nod back.

‘Find a bin for that,’ Glass is saying. Sooner the mess is cleared up, sooner everyone chooses to forget about what they saw. If there’s no evidence, no consequence, there’s no need to let it spoil a good night.

Peterkinney is gathering up the bigger bits of glass he can find. Glass is leading his girl back to the table, exaggerating his gentlemanly performance. Hoping he’s scored a few macho points. The silent girl is moving seat, dropping into Glass’s seat before he can take it. Making sure she’s next to Peterkinney now. He’s standing up with the glass in his hands. Smiling at the girl, who’s now smiling back. That’s a step forwards.

Now he’s turning to look at the middle-aged man who stepped in to help. Too late. He’s already sitting back down, whispering something to the girl next to him. She looks like a teenager. A pretty teenager. Not one of the bottle-blonde, orange skin brigade. There’s a few of them here, but not many. Marty’s more discerning than that. He knows his clients look for something better. Something that gives the appearance of being a higher class, even when it’s not. The aura of unattainability; nothing sells better. No point interrupting. That wouldn’t be any kind of a thank you.

There was a bin over by the doorway. He tipped the broken glass into it. On the way over and the way back, three people patted him on the back. A couple of others gave him a smile and a nod. Men and women. People here to party, and people here to work. Obviously Fraser was not a popular partygoer. Back at the table, sitting in his seat. Someone’s tipped it back the right way. On the tabletop there are white lines ready. Silent Girl is passing him a note and smiling. It suits her. The party’s starting.

BOOK: The Night the Rich Men Burned
13.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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