/ Language: English / Genre:thriller,


Martina Cole

Highly acclaimed for her hard-hitting, uncompromising and compelling writing, as well as her phenomenal Number 1 success, Martina Cole is the only author who dares to tell it like it is. After the recent runaway success of "The Take", Martina's new novel, "Close", is the story of the women who are left behind. Set in London's dark and violent gangland, this novel tells the tale of a gutsy mother and her two sons, and their lives in and out of jail. With her characteristically haunting writing and visceral subject matter, Martina Cole, has written yet another compulsive bestseller.

Martina Cole


For my Peter, Mr Peter Bates


The pain was finally easing and the woman sighed with relief.

She glanced at the clock once more. Its ticking was heavy in the quiet of the room. Her long fingers picked at the candlewick bedspread, then the warmth of her bedding made her relax once more with the anticipation of the long sleep.

Her old granny had bragged about the long sleep, the only time a woman ever lay down without consequence, she said. Meaning that the grave alone could finally give you any kind of rest. It was a truth she had not understood for a long time. Had not wanted to believe that a time would come when you were so tired of living that death actually seemed inviting, so you didn't care about leaving the people you had spent your life looking out for, had spent your life taking care of. It had seemed almost unreal then, imagining herself with the criss-cross lines of old age, the paper-thin yellowed skin of regret, for a life lived without any kind of thought for the future when the future was important. The future was eventually all about what you had really done, not what you wished you had done. Then, to crown it all, the final realisation that sex was nothing more than a primeval urge, an impulse, a bodily function like shitting or farting, not love.

She sighed again, heavily, the rattling of her bony frame reminding her how fleeting life really was.

Too much had happened in her life and it had finally tired her out, she was sick of fighting, she was ready to rest. She wanted to see her girl, her baby girl at last. See her Colleen. Take care of her.

It was time for her final sleep all right, she knew that much. But until she had seen all her children, made them understand her decision, she would wait until the time was right.

'I will break your fucking neck if you don't stop cunting me around.'

The words were spoken quietly, not in anger, but they were laced with a malevolence that only a fool would choose to ignore. When Pat Brodie threatened, it was always done in an almost friendly fashion. It was his eyes that told the person he was talking to that he meant business. That he would destroy them without a second's thought, and smile while he did it.

Mikey Donovan kept his temper under control with difficulty; he was doing this man a favour and a half, and they both knew it. But cocaine was a sacking offence for people who worked for the Home Office, especially screws, and he had been supplying it for a while. Now there was a dearth of it and Brodie was not impressed. What did he expect him to do, magic it from thin air?

Pat Brodie was a handful, and although Mikey knew that he had a lot on his mind, his mother on the verge of snuffing it was affecting him badly, but even amiable and pleasant-natured Mikey had had enough. Brodie was one powerful man, built like the proverbial brick shithouse and he was also far above the intelligence levels of the usual blaggers Mikey came across. Add to that a natural cunning and a psychotic personality, and you had one dangerous bastard to contend with. He was in for the alleged murder of his brother, and that alone spoke volumes.

Hard fuck did not even cover it, as far as Mikey was concerned, and he had seen his fair share of those over the years. No, Brodie was that totally unexpected quantity; he was an intelligent lunatic and they were as dangerous as they were rare.

'You had better have worded me good for a compassionate visit, Donovan, because I need out, and if I don't get bail, I am going to hold you personally responsible.'

Mikey sighed, he had not expected any less.

Brodie knew he was stronging it and he knew that no matter how much Donovan might feel the urge to retaliate, he wouldn't. He was a screw, and like most screws in hard nicks, he knew how far he could go.

The faint smell of cold tea and buttered bread reminded her of summer days long gone. She closed her eyes and allowed the memories to wash over her.

She could feel once more the oppressive summer heat of years gone by, a heat so intense that it had caused the petrol fumes to hang on the air. She could smell the different aromas of Sunday lunches cooking along the street. The roast was expected by the men, and no matter that the kitchens would all be as unbearably hot as her own and that standpipes were being used everywhere because of the usual summer drought, the women would still be expected to produce a huge meal for three o'clock on the dot. For after the pubs turned out the men would meander home in a state of inebriation and with a raging hunger brought on by drinking steadily from ten-thirty that morning.

She knew beef was the preferred meat of the day, but the smell of chicken and pork was just as popular when money was tight and someone had done a dolly at an abattoir, making the meat available when by rights they shouldn't have enough poke to put a fucking sandwich together. It was all about paper, as her old man used to say. On paper things looked different, paper was just another excuse to scam, whether it was meat, clothes, whatever. Thanks to those little bits of paper no one went without. Except the people who owned the goods being bartered, of course, and they didn't count. After all, didn't they have enough?

She smiled then, remembering those lazy days. Then she remembered her husband had lived off paper and that it had caused a lot of aggravation when he had died, been murdered. In fact, she had been left boracic lint, and that had caused its own set of problems. She had ended up with two more kids, just to feed the ones she had already acquired. Her mother had made it her life's work telling her how she had fucked up. Then she had decided that she was the perfect daughter, but only because she had been scared of her own company. And that woman had loved Lance so much it had been almost a mania with her from his birth; she had adored him from the off. But she had never liked him, her own son, and she had always felt there was something sinister about him, even when he had been a baby. And she had been right.

She could hear her boys laughing as they kicked a football around the sparse grass of their backyard, see her daughters sitting on the back doorstep in their Sunday finery, pouring out imaginary cups of teas for their dolls and feeding them imaginary cakes made from dandelions and buttercups. Their thick blond hair brushed into tidy ponytails and their chubby childish knees scuffed with scabs that had been picked over leaving small bloodstains on their long white socks. The high-voiced laughter of her girls until the ball the boys were kicking would inevitably find its way over to them, knocking their carefully prepared picnic flying. She could remember the fat tears in her twin girls' eyes, her poor little daughters' bewilderment at the male presence that always managed to disturb the games, and her own relief at their brothers' hearty kindness as they picked up the brightly coloured plastic tea set, and assorted dollies and tried, in their overly masculine way, to set it all right once more for them.

Pat Junior, the eldest, always the leader, his rough but kindly ministrations being copied by the other boys who knew it was expected of them. Pat loved those girls and he took great care of them, his brothers as well, in his own haphazard way. Colleen's death had taken him hard and she knew how he felt; it had nearly destroyed her, but she had learned a great lesson from it, they all had.

Poor Colleen had been far too good for this world; an old saying that had been proved only too true.

Kathleen and Eileen, the twins, adored their brother Pat, as had Colleen, and he would hug them and make them laugh once more, before going back to the game of football with the girls' adoring eyes turned to him as always. He was a good boy, and he was a good man, whatever anyone might try to say about him. He was his father's son all right, and for that she would always love him.

Now her Shawn was another good lad, as was Shamus, and she knew she would get a good look at them before she finally went for the long sleep.

The long sleep was such a wonderful thought; she was tired, bone weary in fact. Her mind was once more back in the present and now she could smell the faint odour of her own body; her sweat was sweet, almost like almonds. She knew it was the drugs she was on, the smell emanating from her pores a constant reminder of her old age and her pain-racked body.

There was nothing left of her now, the once voluptuous curves were nothing but bone and sagging skin. She smiled, she actually looked like her granny. Oh how history repeated itself.

She glanced at the photograph in a heavy silver frame that stood on her bedside table; in the photo she was a young woman with her eldest son in her arms, and a belly full of arms and legs. She knew now something she had never known back then.

She had been beautiful, really beautiful, and she had wasted it. Wasted the only thing she had ever really had going for her. Because in those days a woman's looks were all she had.

Her stepfather's rough, cigarette and whisky-soaked voice came to her, laughing as he said, 'You are sitting on a fucking goldmine, girl, remember that.'

Her mother had gone off her head at him, screaming at him not to put those thoughts in her mind. She hated him, she realised now. Her mother had tied herself to a man who wasn't, as her granny would always say with a drink in her, worth a wank.

She tore her eyes away from the offending photo, unable to bear looking at the woman she had once been, and comparing her with the cancer-riddled wreck she was now.

But her life had been eventful, if nothing else.

She closed her eyes and retreated again into the past, which was becoming more and more real to her with every passing hour.

Patrick Brodie was still waiting patiently for word that he could visit his dying mother. He didn't hold out much hope, though his brief had pointed out that he was only on remand even if they were making out like he was already sentenced. He would love to hold her in his arms once more. Feel her familiar embrace one last time.

She had been a game old bird, and a good mother, despite everything that had happened to her in her life.

He remembered her as he always did, in her heyday, shouting the odds, putting his father in his place. Cooking her gargantuan meals and always with a cigarette in her mouth.

She was such a character, and he had loved her more than anyone else, even after all the problems with her men after his father's untimely demise.

His father's murder had hit them hard, but his mother most of all. She had lost more than a husband, she had in effect lost the only person who had ever really valued her other than her kids.

His father's death had been the catalyst for all their problems and the hardships, and he saw that now. It had turned Pat into the man he was, made him the man he had become. The man who was awaiting trial for the murder of his brother, his own flesh and blood. A murder for which he had not one iota of remorse, only sorrow that he had not done it earlier. Got shot, got rid. Eradicated him as you would any kind of predatory vermin. They couldn't prove it, and no one was going to talk, he was as sure of that as he was sure of his own name. Everyone knew he had done the dirty deed, but no one could prove it. In this country you needed evidence, not circumstances, and he was confident of a 'not guilty' verdict.

He had watched his dad die, seen it in glorious detail, and had learned very early in life that in this world, their world anyway, it was all about the survival of the fittest. His father had let his guard down, had not thought things through, a mistake he had never made himself. Seeing your old man's brains all over your mother's jumper tended to stay in your mind, and the reason for it happening tended to make you determined never to make the same mistake.

It had lodged in his bonce, it had made him wary, made him cold, but it had also made a child into a man well before his time. It had made him embrace skulduggery and chicanery with a fervour his father would have been proud of.

As a kid, he had only tried to help his mother look after his siblings, he had never realised then that it would become his way of life. A bit of hoisting here, a bit of burglary there, gravitating as the years went on to other kinds of illegal activities to keep them all clothed and fed, a roof over their heads, the tallyman off the doorstep, and a few bob for his poor mum to go out and have a good time. It had been a means to an end, that was all.

That he would like the world he had been catapulted into, that he would rise in it and make a name for himself, had not been on the agenda. That he had eventually given his dead father's name some kind of meaning, after all that had happened, was just coincidence. How could he have known all that would happen?

His mother had tried to keep him in line, taken the strap to him, had threatened him and tried to keep him out of trouble. Even though she had inadvertently brought a lot of it on them all, with her choice of men, with her choice of lifestyle. She had been a girl though, there was no doubt about that. And, in fairness, she had traipsed around the prisons, visiting one or the other of them.

He sighed, he was only on remand in Belmarsh and they still had him locked up like a lifer. Double A grade, like some kind of fucking terrorist. How they had the nerve to sanction other countries about their penal laws when they treated their own as guilty before there was even a trial, he did not know. Innocent till proven guilty? A fucking joke or what?

There was no reason not to let him out to see his mother, but he knew they would find a way to keep him there if they could. They hated him, and they had good reason to. He hated the system, and whenever he had been banged up he had fought it with every bone in his body.

He breathed in deeply, feeling the familiar anger welling up inside him once more, the anger that had always been there, that had caused him to do terrible things, but he could also feel his determination not to let it spill over until he had seen he woman who had borne him, who had loved him.

Then he would let it explode once more, and feel the release wash over him and the peace descend as always.

Until the next time.

Eileen lit a cigarette and, taking a deep pull on it, she blinked back the tears that were threatening to spill over.

A few minutes earlier she had sponged down her mother's body and the sheer devastation of it had moved her profoundly.

She was like a skeleton, her poor arms and legs were stick-like, her chest was sunken and bruised all over from bleeding under her skin, and the scar from her mastectomy was vicious in the half-light.

She already looked dead and Eileen knew that it couldn't be long before she went. But even though she knew it would be a happy release for her mother, the thought of her never being there ever again was terrifying.

She depended on her so much, needed her so desperately that even though she knew it was selfish, she prayed her mother pulled through as she had before. Paulie, her husband, knew how hard this was for her. He alone knew she had come off the drink so she could nurse the woman who had cared for them all.

She watched through the kitchen window as her twin sister Kathleen made sandwiches and talked to anyone who would listen to her. Poor Kath, as she was known, it would hit her hard as well.

That bastard Lance was dead but would never be forgotten by any of them, no matter how hard they tried to push him from their thoughts.

His death had been the finish of their mother, even though Eileen knew she had hung on until she knew he was finally gone.

He was to be buried in a pauper's grave, no service arranged, no nothing, and she knew that everyone in their world would wonder why. They would be expecting pomp and circumstance, assuming he would be laid to rest like all the others. They would expect a big do, even though he had died, allegedly, at the hands of his older brother. Nothing had been proved yet, and she hoped that nothing ever was.

Lance had crossed the line, and the heinous nature of his offence had sent shock waves through the whole family. She also knew that the reason he had died would never be forthcoming from any of them. It was another secret, and they were used to secrets, being secretive was second nature to the Brodies.

Let people guess, let them wonder, she didn't care any more.

It was over, it had happened, and it had been dealt with.

Christy, unlike his brother, Pat, was in a squad car being driven into London. He had been questioned about Lance's death as had the rest of his brothers and sisters. Too much had been swept under the carpet with his family, and even though he knew his mother thought it was all for the best, he also knew without a shadow of a doubt that old scores would soon need to be settled. Whatever she thought, and no matter how much she had begged them all not to react to circumstances and events. Once she was gone, it would be open season and they all knew that.

He expected the rows to start, though Patrick would probably put a block on them.

Shawn sipped at his tea and watched as his sister Kathleen made sandwiches with a speed that denoted years of practice. She had lived with their granny and Lance, and been used as a gofer for most of that time. Women were strange in that way, loyal but strange.

He smiled at her sadly and she stopped what she was doing to grab his hand and smile down at him. These two were close, even in a family as close as they all were.

His skin was so dark against hers, yet she never saw that, none of them did. He was the baby and they all doted on him. Most of them anyway.

His father had wandered into their lives and then wandered back out again, turning up periodically, not really a part of the family, but accepted all the same.

His earliest memory was of his mother's smiling face, and his brother Patrick taking him from her arms as she got herself ready for work. He had been about three years old, and he could still smell her particular smell. Cigarettes and Estée Lauder, he had never been able to forget the aroma of safety that smell had always engendered in him.

He wasn't silly, he knew it had been hard for her when she had produced him, but he also knew that she had never cared what anyone thought. His brothers and sisters had loved him more if anything, yet he had been conscious of his colour from an early age, though mostly only when he left the comfort of his home. Now though, it didn't matter, times had changed, and things were different. And he was dreading the death of the woman he loved like he loved no other.

Lance was the only one in the family he had never cared for. He had been a bully and a vicious bully at that, but Shawn knew that his silence had been right and when it had finally come to a head, he was glad that he had not been the one to cause it.

Like his sister, he had suffered at his hands on more than one occasion.

He had seen him in the mortuary, identified the battered body that had not suffered enough, the sneaky bastard lying in peace, and he had finally relaxed knowing that his tormentor was gone for ever.

He smiled as he remembered the scandalised expression on the faces around him as he had hawked in his throat and spat on the corpse of his older brother. 'That's him, the ponce.'

He had said it with as much hatred as he could muster, and he had enjoyed the shock-horror it had caused. They were such a close family, put on such a united front, no one would have believed the undercurrents and the feuds their closeness covered up. Now though, all his thoughts were with the woman upstairs in her bed, and he felt the wetness of his tears as they slid down his face and was amazed to realise he had been crying all along.

Kathleen held on to the hand that had steadied her as a child, that had washed her, brushed her hair and hugged her and the feel of its trembling and the warmth of the papery skin, were almost too much to bear.

This woman had given them life, had taken care of them all, visited the boys in every prison in the country come rain or shine, advised her daughters on every aspect of their lives and even when times were so hard there was hardly a bite to eat in the house, had provided them with a meal through the sale of the only asset she possessed. Her strength had communicated itself to them all at some time or another, she had solved her children's problems with a quiet dignity, or screaming anger, depending on the circumstances and her mood. She had stopped war from erupting, and welcomed back black sheep over and over again. She had held them together with the sheer force of her will and her overpowering love. What would happen to them all now? Who would keep them all together, make sure they didn't fall apart, didn't rake up the past and cause murders?

She had always been the voice of reason, had been the one who smoothed over quarrels and made sure that they remembered they were family. Stopped the fights before they began and reminded them that, at the end of the day, each other was all that any of them really had. As close as they were, they had all fallen out big time over the years.

She had been the voice of reason. She had stopped Patrick from murdering on more than one occasion. She had glossed over trouble with a smile, and she had forced them all to lie, if necessary, for the greater good of the family.

Now though she was dying, and none of them was going to find it easy to live without her.

Book One

O Lord, thou hast seen my wrong:

Judge thou my cause.

– (Lamentations 3:59)

Chapter One

'He's a spiv, like his old man, but what can you do?' Barry Caldwell held out his arms in supplication and the men in the public house smiled with him. They were strained smiles though, and Barry observed that much and learned a valuable lesson. He had fucked with the wrong person.

Patrick Brodie, however, laughed heartily at the man's words.

It had been said about him in jest many times but he knew it was the truth. Barry had been well and truly had over and, like many a man before him, he was finding out that Patrick Brodie was not a man to cross.

Pat knew, better than any of them, what he was. But unlike the men around him, he knew exactly how far he was prepared to go to get what he wanted. All his life he had been looked down on, abused and treated like shit. This was in part because his father was a big, drunken Irishman with a mouth that ran away with him, and a gambling habit that he had never been able to afford. Consequently, his son, Pat Junior, was close-mouthed, hardly drank, and made his living from the bets amongst other things.

But it was also because he had been abandoned by his mother, had had no formal schooling, dodged the draft with a cheery smile and his natural ambivalence, that made him a law unto himself very early on in life.

He had no intention of fighting for a country that he saw as holding men down and offering them nothing except back-breaking work. He had said as much to his commanding officer. He had also robbed the army stores blind; the black market was still thriving at the time, and he had used that for his own ends.

They'd thrown him in the glasshouse for a year, and in that time he had learned a lot about life, the human condition, but most importantly, he had learned that you had no one to depend on in this life, except yourself.

He had inherited his father's fighting spirit and his absent mother's disregard for others, along with her knack of rewriting history when it suited her, and this had proved to be a winning combination on more than one occasion.

The army had finally waved him off with a sigh of relief and a dishonourable discharge because he fought anyone who disagreed with him about anything. And invariably, he won. He had been as relieved as they were, when they finally parted company.

Now, the last stage of this education was for him to make the final killing and set himself up for life. Barry had tried to have him over, something he would never forgive or forget. Patrick was a force to be reckoned with, and this was made all the more amazing by the fact that he was basically a loner. He worked his scams himself, collected by himself alone, and had garnered a reputation as a man only a fool would cross.

But the main men were old now and, consequently, his job was getting harder and harder. They were like old women, dithering ponces, worried about getting nicked because the judges were suddenly handing out great big lumps and making examples of people. This was now a world waiting to be taken, he was aware of that, and he reassessed his position as and when the occasion merited it.

His father had tolerated hangers-on, had bought himself flaky friendships with pints, with his stories and with his Irish charm. His son, however, trusted no one, needed no one, and his instincts had been proved right time and time again. He had no time for family, none of them had ever been anything except hangers-on, and he had put paid to their leeching. He was a one-man band, he could only trust himself and he accepted that and understood it.

He had a few young men working for him, but he had suddenly realised that after this debacle, he would need to recruit properly. The operation was getting too big for him to work alone. He was lucky that Barry had no serious backup; if he had, then this would end differently.

It was time to share his good fortune, he knew that, but at the moment he was collecting a debt that was long overdue. A debt that Barry had tried to ignore, believing that he would not have the front to come after him.

Brodie's name was synonymous with skulduggery, and he knew that only the rumours surrounding his dishonourable discharge and his phenomenal temper, coupled with the element of surprise, had stood between him and a firearm this night.

But there were others Barry dealt with, and they had their creds. Barry would be all over him like a rash once the shock wore off and he realised that he and his associates were more than capable of taking on a lone man with a large amount of dosh.

He smiled and it occurred to him that whoever he decided to pal up with needed to be a new Face, an up-and-coming lad like himself with the heart and the nerve to take on the more established of their counterparts. The world was changing, and the younger men were needing money and the older men were needing a lesson in the real world. The country was still rebuilding, not only buildings, but the economy, and the pickings were juicy enough to make Brodie not just a man of means, but also a man to be listened to, and more importantly, a man to respect.

Everything had changed with the war, and Patrick had seen that it was a new era coming, and that the new world they would finally inhabit was open to all sorts of money-making schemes. This meant a new criminal fraternity, and Brodie was determined that he would be a big part of that change. It was what he had worked towards, it was what made him the man he was, and it was why Barry was now awaiting his downfall.

It was the sixties, and life was sweet for anyone with a bit of nous and a few quid to sweeten their journey through life.

Patrick was one of the first to challenge the likes of Barry Caldwell and his ilk. It was in with the young and out with the old.

They had all known this day was coming, they had just not had the foresight to make any kind of provision for when it all finally fell out of bed.

Well, fuck them. His rep would gather enough talk tonight to make him a household name in East London. The debt was large and had also been a long time coming, but when he actually went after Barry and his peers and took all their work off them they would understand that he was now not just their equal, but one of their betters. His rep would finally be strong enough for him to become the lynchpin of a new and exciting world that he would not only create, but also control.

The war had separated the men from the boys, and the old men who had ruled because the country's youth had been scattered to the ends of the earth, were now going to find out that it really was about the survival of the fittest.

Their days of being the dog's bollocks were over, finished with, gone. This lot might have been the instigators of this brave new world way back, but they had no control over it any more. They were like fucking antiques, decrepit, and frightened of the new generation who had access to guns and no real fear of the filth. It was time to make his move all right, and he was ready to take the consequences of his actions.

His mind made up, he picked up his beer and, emptying the straight-lined Courage glass of its contents, he proceeded to smash it with all the force he could muster, into Barry Caldwell's chubby, pasty and comically surprised face.

Patrick had the psychological advantage, he had drawn first blood. He was quick to note that none of the men around him tried to intervene, and he knew then, without a shadow of a doubt, that his instincts, as usual, had been spot on.

They all looked defeated, they all looked shocked and they were all frightened that the next person on his agenda was going to be one of them. They were old, old before their time from piss-ups, chain-smoking and easy pickings. None of them had been seriously challenged since their call-up papers, they were rejects, they were from the past, from a life that was grey and empty, and their antiquated moral code stifled younger men like himself. They were carrion, old, wizened wankers. They were finished and they all knew it.

Well, he was still young enough to make his mark, yet old enough to command respect. Pat Brodie was on his way up, and at twenty-nine, he was ready to put his money where his notoriously close mouth was.

The courts were handing out long sentences, and instead of that being a deterrent, it only made him and his counterparts more reckless, more violent, because if they were going to go down then they would make sure it was for a fucking good reason.

He looked down at Barry. Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.

Lily Diamond was tired out. Her shift had been long and her legs were swelling from fourteen hours of standing in a freezing factory on a cold floor, and then waiting over an hour for the bus that dropped her off a ten-minute walk from her home.

As she went into her house, she was already yawning and her mother took her coat from her, hung it on the back of the door and poured her a cup of steaming black tea. Then, with her usual swiftness, she placed a plate of ham and eggs in front of her.

This was all done in silence so as not to wake the drunken man who was quietly snoring on the settee in the small parlour nearby.

Lily smiled at her mother but they both knew it meant nothing, these were two people who had realised that there was no real connection between them many years before.

Lily knew that she looked like her mother. They had the same thick hair and the same grey eyes, their builds were similar enough for people to mistake them for each other from the rear, and they were both blessed with a fantastic bone structure that belied her mother's advancing years, and reassured her daughter that her looks were probably going to last a lot longer than the majority of her friends. But other than that, they were as different in temperament as a dog and a cat.

They had only one thing in common and that was a hatred for the man who ruled their lives, and who terrorised their every waking moment.

Mick Diamond was not her father and she thanked God for that every day of her life, but he had married her mother when she was already pregnant with another man's child, made her respectable and then waited for the children of his own that had never arrived. Consequently, she had not only been resented by him, but also been a constant reminder that it was his fault there were no sons around his table, no children to look to in his old age and no other wages available to assuage his unhappiness by providing him with the alcohol he so desperately craved.

His name would live on through a bastard, through someone else's child. The fact she existed was proof positive that the blame for his wife's childless state must lie with him.

Lily had grown up in a household devoid of any kind of love, or any kind of normality. She had learned at an early age that keeping quiet, staying in the background and trying to be as invisible as possible, was the only way she could hope to survive.

She was a constant reminder to her mother of her shame and a constant reminder to her stepfather of his inability to sire any children of his own. By five, she was a diplomat, already understanding the need to keep both these unstable people happy by not ever making any noise, never demanding their time and most importantly, never bringing any attention to either them or herself from anyone outside their scuffed and well-worn front door.

Now, as a wage earner, she had gained a certain grudging respect, but it had been a long time coming. At fifteen, she understood her life better than people three times her age; she needed to keep the peace until she had enough money to set up on her own, or marry herself out of it all.

As Lily ate, she felt the oppressive atmosphere that always pervaded her home, and she swallowed quickly and quietly as she always had.

Meals were not something to be enjoyed in this house, they were just a necessary part of life, and the social element of eating had never been made apparent to her until she had gone to friends' homes. Seeing them eating leisurely whilst talking about their day or about what was in the newspaper, she had felt as if she was experiencing a revelation not unlike those of St John the Divine.

Until work had claimed her, she had never played outside her house, had never interacted with anyone, at school or otherwise, and she had never realised that her home life was so different to everyone else's.

At school she had been timid, and she had not made friends because her mother and stepfather had never seemed to make any friends either. It was a social skill she had only procured for herself since work had opened her eyes to a world she had never known existed.

At school she had been ridiculed, because of her clothes, her shyness and her terror of mixing with the other children. Her fear of them had given them all the power, but her greatest fear had been of bringing any kind of intrusion into the house she had been brought up in. The fear of someone knocking on the front door for her had caused her to almost faint with fright. Her loneliness had been so acute it had made her ache inside as if she were suffering from some kind of physical illness. Even the most hardened nun had been, to her, a contact with someone other than her parents, and she had relished even the wicked onslaughts of their tongues because at least someone was acknowledging that she existed.

Being part of a crowd was something she now understood, in fact now needed, and more than anything else, it was something she knew was actually keeping her sane. The 'you never had it so good' era had come and gone without anyone in her household mentioning it. But then again, apparently her mother and granny had sat under the kitchen table or in the Anderson shelter in the small backyard and had not once made any kind of comment about the Germans, the war or Hitler himself; they were proud of that fact.

Nothing of note had ever been addressed in this house; it was as if the outside world didn't exist for them. Her granny had died suddenly one night and her mother had hardly mentioned it; she had been slid out of the front door in a wooden box and it had been just another day to them. But at least Lily's burden had been eased a little; her fatherless state had never failed to be mentioned at every available opportunity by her granny, so it was with relief that she mourned her passing.

Lily was scared, all the time she was terrified, but she had never really known what of. It was jumbled inside her head and as no one ever addressed her unless absolutely necessary, it had stayed there.

Her fear had been ignored in the same way she had, and not once had anyone tried to still the terrified beating of her heart, or explain to her that it would all be over soon. It was only at school, when she had eavesdropped on other kids' conversations, that she had an inkling of what other people's lives were about.

Now, the need to escape these people was all-encompassing, the need to cut herself off from them was so overpowering she wondered how they could not hear her thoughts, so loud were they at times, and so vicious, she was frightened of what she might be capable of doing to the pair of them while they slept.

Her mother cleared her plate away and refilled her cup without once speaking to her, and, as always, Lily took her cup of tea up to her tiny bedroom, undressed herself in the dark and lay down in the cold bed to sleep. She was shivering from the cold, and from her deep-seated fear of having to live a broken and lonely life like this for the rest of her days. So stunted were her emotions, though, that even now, at her lowest ebb, it did not occur to her to cry.

Crying had never gained Lily anything, even as a baby it had never brought her mother to her side, and so she did not understand that to most girls of her age it was a powerful weapon to be used, was a tool to be harnessed and eventually unleashed on the men in her life, both old and new, to guarantee that she got exactly what she wanted.

Her life was all wrong, and she knew it, had always known it deep inside, but her foray into the real world had made her not only aware of how it could, indeed should, be lived, it had also made her impatient to leave these two people in her past, and start living her own life in her own way. Without them.

The first thing she would do when she had enough money and confidence to branch out on her own, was to buy herself a wireless.

She was going to surround herself with noise and with people, she was going to make her life mean something, if not to anyone else, then to herself. She wanted colour and sound and laughter, she wanted to feel easy inside, wanted to experience the love of another human being and, most of all, she wanted peace of mind. She needed to feel a part of something bigger than her, bigger than the world that had been forced on her without her knowledge or her permission, wanted to be part of what was happening in the world. Lily Diamond had finally had a taste of reality and she was heady with the feeling of freedom it evoked inside her budding breasts, and she was suddenly beginning to understand just what life was really all about.

Lily Diamond had discovered boys or, more to the point, they had discovered her, and the exciting feelings they could engender inside her body amazed her. She had finally discovered freedom, the power to talk to people and to know they were listening to her. Lily was planning her escape, and it could not come soon enough for her.

She lay in the damp darkness and waited patiently for the sleep that would come because she was bone-weary. She welcomed it, sleep had always been her friend, sleep had been her only escape from a life that was as drab as the rain-sodden streets she walked, as drab as the woman who had borne her. Sleep had always been her only salvation; even God had abandoned her because her mother and father had also controlled what contact she had with him.

As her eyes closed, she was certain that, even though she had no idea what she was going to do when she left this house, once she was far away from the dragging dullness and the quiet desperation of these surroundings, she would miraculously know what to do with her life next.

She wondered if the man with the black car and the scar on his cheek would be there again tomorrow when she went for the bus. She hoped so. He excited her more than the pimply boys she worked alongside, or the clerks that gave her the once-over in the grubby factory offices when she picked up her pay packet.

This man somehow denoted a glamorous danger that, until now, she had only experienced on rare occasions in the lonely darkness of the movie theatre. She was, as the women she worked with would say, an accident waiting to happen.

Pat Brodie had been watching the girl for a while. She was young and that bothered him; he had always gone for brassy blondes with more mileage than an army truck and more carnal knowledge than was good for them. Talented, was how he described them to himself. Those kind of women knew exactly what to expect from him, and they didn't harbour any illusions, had no foolish dreams of marriage, children or, God help him, love. They took what he was willing to give, the three Fs; a fuck, a fiver and some guaranteed fun. Until now, that was all he had wanted, needed.

Now, this young girl who worked in the Black Cat factory where he picked up cigarettes to sell in pubs and clubs for a fraction of their retail price, had got under his skin.

He was a lot older than her and she was far too young for him, but even knowing that, he still thought about her constantly and it was her obvious innocence that attracted him. Her scruffy clothes and defeated look only seemed to enhance her appeal. It was about more than looks, and this was what worried him the most. This young girl had somehow got under his skin. He had never even spoken to her, he did not know her name and he had no reason in the world to feel like he did.

Now, as he watched her walk to the bus stop once more, he saw the lean lines of her body under the shapeless coat, and appreciated the beauty of a face devoid of make-up and knew that the thing he had always dreaded had finally happened. He wanted her in more ways than just the biblical sense.

Getting out of his car, he followed her to the bus stop with a heavy heart and the hope that once she opened her mouth the illusion she created would disappear, that her allure would fade away because of her cockney accent and ignorant choice of vocabulary.

But under the weak light of the street lamp he found himself lost for words. She turned on hearing him approach, her eyes looked into his, and he saw mirrored there the same feelings and emotions as his own. Except her fear was real, he frightened her and this saddened him because he wanted to make her smile, to make her happy. That was his biggest fear: if he wanted to make her happy, he knew he needed her.

They stared at each other for long moments and he saw her physically relax as if he had told her she had nothing to be scared of, as if they had both agreed to become friends.

Her fear disappeared but his own seemed to increase along with his nervousness.

'Well?' Her voice was low, deep in fact, almost a whisper, and he heard the tremor of excitement the fear inside her caused. He knew then that she had been expecting him, that she welcomed his interest, understood somehow that he meant her no harm.

When she arched one well-plucked eyebrow in enquiry, he also knew then and there that he would never rest until she was his.

She suddenly had all the power and they both knew that, but he didn't care, he was just happy to be near her.

Mick Diamond looked at his stepdaughter in unconcealed disbelief and his wife Annie, he knew, was staring at him in exactly the same way.

'What did you say?' Lily's voice was as always low and respectful when talking to this huge mountain of red flesh and uncertain temper.

'I said, keep your money, girl…'

Lily Diamond had been trying to save her money for ages, but no matter where she hid it, this man found it and spent it without a second's thought. Her mother had no idea she had been given a raise and she had kept the few bob aside, and because of that, she could never say out loud that this man had robbed her while she slept or while she worked. If her mother had known, she would not have had the money anyway, it would have been taken from her immediately.

Now he was standing before her and telling her, civilly mind, that she was not to give over her few bob. She was to keep it, and the most damaging and terrifying remark of all was that he had said she was to treat herself. This, she decided, had to be a new trick of some kind and she tensed up even more, waiting for the blow, the sarcastic remark or the derisory laughter that always made her feel like she was nothing.

She glanced at her mother and knew that she was waiting for the same reaction. What seemed like light-years passed by, each second dragged out almost tangibly in the heavy quiet of the kitchen. Still, it didn't come.

This was a new game then. She had survived worse so she stayed quiet and waited until she knew exactly what she was dealing with, her eyes trained on the money lying there so innocently on the tablecloth, her shoulders aching with the tension this house brought into her bones as soon as she entered the front door.

Mick Diamond looked at the girl and saw the attraction of her to a man like Brodie. He also saw his nemesis; this child could be the death of him with a careless word, because her name was now being coupled publicly and, he was amazed to hear, respectfully, with Patrick Brodie. The sweat was trickling down his face and dripping on to his vest, his hands were trembling and his wife was thankfully struck dumb at his demeanour and his words.

Lily herself, he saw, thought he was baiting her, and this fact worried him even more. It was obvious to him that she didn't know her strength yet, that she didn't understand the power she now wielded and he wanted to get on her good side before she did.

He only hoped it wasn't too late.

'Make the child some tea, woman, and some for meself and all. She's been working all day.'

He smiled at Lily and she looked at her mother as if for guidance.

Annie looked as bewildered as Lily knew she did herself.

Her mother moved with her customary nervousness, the teacups clattering in her shaking hands. Both were wondering if this was a new game of his, a game where he pitted himself against the two of them. He was a bully and he knew his strengths.

He smiled as he lit a Senior Service and, pulling deeply on the cigarette, he held out his arm in a gesture of friendly amiability. He was, Lily realised, offering her a chair.

She sat, as always doing his bidding, even though her hatred of him was so acute she could taste it.

'So where did you meet Mr Brodie then, eh?'

Then she understood, and for the first time ever, she knew how fear could bring you peace of mind, and how fear could change your life for the better. As long as it wasn't your own fear of course.

And as she had lived in abject terror for the best part of her young life, this feeling was wonderful, it was like being released from servitude; she knew that no matter what happened, this man would never frighten her again. He looked smaller already, somehow pathetic and old; his body was hunched over and she knew her own body was now straighter. Patrick had given her respect inside this house and for that alone she would love him to the day she died.

She had the power now, and it was all thanks to her Patrick, Patrick Brodie, the man she was going to marry.

She scooped up her wages from the kitchen table and placed them in her overall pocket. Then she took out her packet of cigarettes and dared to light one in front of her parents and, puffing deeply, she said quietly, 'Tea would be lovely, thanks.'

Her stepfather motioned to his wife and she actually poured the tea then, her mind racing on overtime at what had befallen her daughter and ultimately, she hoped, had befallen herself.

Patrick Brodie was a byword these days, and she knew that if her daughter had managed to snag a fine piece of manhood like him then she had to take the proverbial hat off to her.

Even as the jealousy kicked in, she was, like her husband, looking for ways to utilise the relationship for her own benefit.

This time the tea had sugar as well as milk, and as Lily Diamond lit another cigarette she hoped and prayed that Patrick didn't tire of her, because if he did, these two would slaughter her without a second's thought.

'You having me on?' Billy Spot was laughing, but the laughter was with the subject of his humour, definitely not against him, nor his notoriously flimsy pride.

Since taking out Barry Caldwell, this young man had become an overnight sensation and Billy, being Billy, was waiting to see if this lad's new-found status was going to be a fixture. He had seen them come and go over the years, he knew the score in their game. It was how you survived, you either outlived, or you out-boxed your opponents. At the moment, Pat was the dog's knob and he would worship at his altar if that was what it took to keep himself in the running. He was a follower, not a leader, he knew that better than anyone. But he knew Barry's death had caused ripples through their world and he also knew that retribution was on its way. He had funded it himself, along with a few other cronies. He could afford to be friendly, but he had no intention of giving up his pavement without a fight.

'She seems a nice girl though.' The laughter was gone now, he was all respect and feigned interest.

Pat smiled then. 'She is.'

Pat actually liked Billy and he saw his Lil as on a par with Billy's old woman. She was also a civilian and had never been inside any of her old man's clubs, and had no reputation to speak of. She produced children with the minimum of fuss and she lied to the Old Bill as and when the occasion warranted it. In short, she was a good bird and Billy worshipped the ground she walked on.

Like Billy, he too wanted a brahma, a good girl. He wanted someone he could trust even if he got himself a twenty. And his instincts told him that all these attributes were possessed by the young girl he had become besotted with. And he was besotted. He had not wanted another woman for weeks, and for him that was like not wanting a drink or a deal.

In short, it was unheard of.

He had other things on his mind and once they were dealt with, he could relax and court his girl in peace. He was making himself a decent living so that once he was married he could live like a king.

Unfortunately, that involved stepping on more than a few toes, but he was prepared for the fallout and more than eager to take up any reins that might come his way.

He was a chancer like his father, but unlike his father he liked to make sure that anything he accrued stayed close by. He guessed that Billy, like Barry, was not allowing for his acumen in this new world of skulduggery. Respecting your elders was a luxury these days, and the sooner the silly old fuckers realised that, the better off they would all be.

'Do you have a problem with me outing drugs, Bill?'

Billy shrugged, and Patrick was impressed at the way the man acted so nonchalantly when they both knew the score; he was taking Billy's businesses over gradually and irrevocably. Billy Spot's workforce were now all working in some way for him.

It was a checkmate situation and Patrick hoped that Billy would understand that and not grieve too much over times gone by.

He had heard the rumours about retribution for Barry and he watched his back, but he also accepted it as part and parcel of their choice of career.

Billy's day was long gone, he had made the mistake all powerful men make; he hadn't been on the actual street for years. He was told only what he wanted to hear and he couldn't cap anyone himself, relying on heavies to do his dirty work. He was an embarrassment to all and sundry.

Pat knew the man was waiting to see whether he could keep up this dangerous façade, and if he could, he knew he would have a partner, if not in crime, then at least at the local drinking establishments. He had been willing to use Billy even though he knew the man and his cronies were putting up pound notes to bring about his demise. None of them had liked Barry as such, but none of them wanted to be Barry.

He understood that, except if he had been in Billy's shoes he would have been dead by now.

'You jammy little mare!'

Constance White looked at the young girl packing cigarettes expertly into boxes beside her, and her grin was friendly and amiable. 'Fuck me, girl, you got Pat Brodie! Most of his amours end up calling him Glenn Miller and that's because he normally goes on the missing list.'

Everyone laughed, and Lily went bright red with embarrassment.

At twenty, Constance was already married and had two children; her husband was a no-neck with acne scars and the conversation of an African elephant. So she envied this little piece even as she admired her. Many women had tried to snag Brodie, herself included, but he had slipped away like an oily chain. Good-looking girl though, and men like Brodie liked the innocent look, in a wife anyway. Like all men he wanted to be sure that any children carrying his name were actually his. No cuckoos in the nest for him. He was thirty if he was a day and she was fifteen; he must think all his Christmases and birthdays had come at once.

But it was the change in Lily that amazed Constance. The girl had grown into herself overnight, had started walking tall, she spoke before she was spoken to and she had the flushed cheeks of a girl ripe for the marriage bed.

Connie, as she was called, knew that this child, and she was a child for all her mature looks, was not going to be one of Brodie's usual shack-ups. He wanted this one to breed with, and she had a feeling Lily would amaze them all.

Lily smiled happily; thanks to Pat she was set for life, and this factory and all it entailed would be a thing of the past soon. As soon as she hit sixteen she was gone.

Thunderclap Newman came on the radio and she sang along with her workmates; there definitely was something in the air.

Patrick affected her in so many ways, and as she packed her cigarettes she dreamt of his body touching hers, and longed for the kisses she was sure to get once the night drew in and they were alone in his car.

Billy Spot was standing outside his nightclub in Soho with his girlfriend on his arm. A redhead called Velma, she had all his usual prerequisites; big tits, nice teeth and long skinny legs. Billy was wearing his customary attire: black Crombie overcoat, pin-stripe suit and an expensive cigar.

He was amazed to see his girlfriend start walking quickly away from him, extricating herself from his flabby arms even as he saw with his peripheral vision young Patrick Brodie pull a gun from underneath his coat. He was a dead man and he knew it.

He hit the floor with the minimum of fuss and Patrick was gone before anyone thought of calling in the law to make things look above board, look normal. The gun was dispatched into the Thames, and Billy's associates were aware of his demise within hours. It made no odds to them; he was a nice bloke but as they all remarked in private, business was business.

It was out with the old and in with the new. Pat had decided, on the spur of the moment, to erase the older man and open up the streets properly. Spot had cunted him to a close associate, and that was something he was not about to allow. He was not going to ponce around any more, he had Lil, and he wanted it all.

Pat bought the rest of the London consortium out with little fuss; he was too young and too dangerous for them and they all decided to retire from the game. He had everyone behind him and he had the edge because of that. This new generation were nutcases; they wanted it all and they wanted it as quickly as possible. Drugs had moved the goal posts and the old lot didn't want any part in it.

Billy should have seen that coming.

Chapter Two

Pat loved the docks at night. Even the stench of the river was something to be enjoyed. As a kid, after his mother had walked out, he had played here while waiting for his father to finish his fighting. A street fighter, he had sporadically made money with magnificent wins. As the drink got him though, he lost more often than not. Then the money had not been as plentiful and that had just made him drink all the more.

One of the reasons he had disappeared as well, Pat decided, was his gradual loss of face and reputation. He understood now how hard that must have been for him, but he still could find no forgiveness in his heart. He had dumped him without a by-your-leave and that alone had hardened him up, and it had also made him determined to always take care of his own, no matter what. Walking away was easy, it was staying around and sorting out your own shit that took guts, that made you a man.

Pat closed his eyes and forced all thoughts of his parents from his mind. They were over with, finished, gone. They were both the shit on his shoes, he had no care for either of them, and he certainly had no intentions of letting them encroach on his life any more than they already had. He had a coldness inside him, it had been there all his life, the fear of depending on another person, the fear of being soft, of being seen as a mark. Now though, with Lil, he felt in control because she needed him, it wasn't the other way around.

It hurt him to remember how he had been dragged up, how, like any child brought into the world of poverty, his life had been a lottery. He knew his parents wanted him now, shocked that their child had managed something neither of them had even dreamt of; they actually thought he would be cunt enough to take them on board. Like he was mug enough to even entertain any of them. The only time in their life they had ever agreed on anything and it was too late. He would not piss on them if they burst into flames in front of his eyes. He was happy enough as he was. He had not needed anyone until his wife and she was all he needed, he respected her. Simple as that. Unlike his mother, she had not been round the turf more times than a fucking prize-winning greyhound. All his life he had been overlooked, mugged-off, and now he was making his mark, making people understand that he was a force to be reckoned with and he was enjoying every second of it. Not that he would ever admit that of course. Even to himself.

He stared up at the new moon and smiled to himself, enjoying his lonely vigil, enjoying his power over his past.

Under the cover of darkness, Custom House, like all the dock areas, was as alive at night as it was during the day. The difference being that the night-time deals were made by dark-clothed men with subdued voices and menacing reputations. The whores that walked the quays in the small hours were the older women, their best years behind them, the dim glow of the lampposts their only friend. They were used-up, weather-beaten, defeated-looking women. The dock dollies who frequented the wharfs with a determined stealth waited patiently for the punters they were now reduced to; the Chinamen, the Arabs and the Africans. Their bleached-blonde hair and heavily made-up blue eyes were like beacons to these men, drawing them into their world with a slow smile, then finishing them off quickly and expertly with either a hand or their thighs.

The sex was quick, furtive, and unsatisfactory, not only for the men but also for their conquests. These hard women who only knew how to use, whose lives were lived in black and white, had no feeling any more for the reality they were unfortunate enough to charge money for. The darkness gave them a reason to ply the trade that had destroyed them; reduced to the lowest of humanity they embraced the night because it paid their rent. There were no pensions or savings for these women, easy money had ensured they were never off the pavement, and the money they were earning now was a pittance in comparison to their heydays.

This was another world, and it was a world that Pat Brodie hated and loved with equal passion. He had met his mother walking these very docks once, and her plight had not touched him one iota; he had enjoyed her embarrassment, enjoyed her demise. In his eyes she had hit rock-bottom when she had deserted him and he felt no allegiance to her at all. He didn't even mind if anyone knew about it: she was nothing to him, and he had no intentions of making her think otherwise.

Since his marriage he had found a renewed vigour for making money. Lil was everything to him and he found that his feelings for her seemed to grow on a daily basis. She was as astonished as he was to find that she had a very bad temper, which inflamed them both. She was passionate and she was funny.

Things that had either been hidden or had lain dormant inside her for years while tiptoeing round her mother's house trying to be invisible, had finally come to the surface. Pat's face hardened as he thought about the way she had been treated and he wondered for the millionth time why she still entertained her mother.

The fucking leech was never off the doorstep and she seemed to have a real affection for her grandchild, if not for her daughter, though she acted the concerned parent with a zeal that was as astounding as it was unbelievable. Money did that to people, he knew it better than anyone. He also knew Lil needed her, needed to believe that the woman who had birthed her, cared about her. She believed that it was her birth that had been the catalyst for her mother's unhappy marriage and was the reason for her own bullied and hated existence. Lil was too nice for her own good, and he swallowed it; if it made her happy then he was satisfied. But her mother was like his, a product of poverty and betrayal, the product of a man who had knocked her up and run away leaving her to make the best she could of her new-found circumstances. Lil forgave her for marrying a man who had tortured them both, and in a strange way he understood her forgiveness: at least this way she could pretend her life meant something. For himself, he couldn't wait until the old bag blotted her copybook, and she would, her type always did, then he would take great pleasure in showing her the door. Until then, he would swallow his knob and smile when required.

Still, she helped out and that was something. Young Pat Junior was a handful, and he loved him with all his heart. He was his father's son all right; he only hoped that he didn't have anything of his paternal grandfather inside him. Only time would tell. Pat wanted a horde of children and he was shrewd enough to know that one of them would be likely to inherit not only the laziness, the poncing and lying that his father had been so good at, but also, the unconcerned demeanour of his mother. She would come out in one of them he knew, as would his father.

That man had been able to talk himself out of anything, and he would take the bread out of his child's mouth for a drink or a bet. It was sod's law that a large family would throw up a waster but Pat prayed that he would recognise the traits early enough to stamp them out. Beat them out of the child, if that was what it took. Unlike his old man who beat him for no other reason than he wanted to.

And his mother. She had fucked off on a regular basis, left him there with a man who had no idea how to raise a child and no interest in anything except where the next drink was coming from. He had lived on and off with various relatives all his life, so his home with Lil was everything to him, as it was to her.

Although Lil tried to make excuses for her parents, well her mother anyway, he had no such illusions about his beginnings; all he knew was that he wanted to make a good life for his family and he wanted to make his wife feel needed, loved and respected for what she was.

He still took the occasional flier of course, but he was as faithful to her as he was ever going to be. It had been a voyage of discovery for both of them. But the bottom line was that they worked well together and they needed each other.

As he stamped out his cigarette, he looked around the warehouse and wondered at this cannabis that everyone seemed so mad about. He was a Scotch man himself, but if this was what would add to his fortunes, then he was happy enough to supply it. Times were changing and if you had any savvy at all, you changed with them.

He heard the low drone of an expensive car as it pulled up outside and he smiled once more. This was what life was all about, not just the skulduggery, but also the feeling of control skulduggery conferred on the likes of him. Money was everything, and anyone who pretended otherwise was either rich by birth or afflicted by a mental ague. Too stupid to see what was around them.

Dicky Williams walked into the warehouse, as always surrounded by his brothers. They were like clones of one another, all short, stocky and with crew cuts. They all favoured tonic suits, shirt and ties. This was one of the reasons Pat liked doing business with them; they were smart, both in their minds and their appearance.

They were funny as well and this went a long way in their world. A sense of humour could be the deciding factor in many aspects of their business. Especially the debts; a first call with a smiling face and a few quips could garner more money than all the baseball bats and tyre irons in the vicinity. It was more about getting your point across to begin with; if no one took that on board then anything that might happen after the initial warning was just classed as gravy. A warning was, after all, a warning.

Why borrow money if you had no intentions of paying it back? The people who approached them knew they were not the fucking bank. If they had been welcome there in the first place they would not be asking them as an alternative, would they? So, ergo, they had to understand that, unlike dealing with the banks, they would be expected to pay the amount back not only quickly and expensively, but with a cheery smile and a promise to pass on their good fortune to friends and associates.

They were the last resort for the people who borrowed from them and they provided the money when no one else would take the chance. Shame this was what gave them a bad name in society.

Dicky came in, rubbing his hands together like Uriah Heep on Dexedrine. 'Froze me cods off, Pat. How the fuck do you stand it?'

Pat laughed.

Dicky had been to see the man they were dealing with for some clothes that had mysteriously disappeared from a large storage depot in Whitechapel. The man rummaged from a huge old house, and even if there was six feet of snow on the ground, the place was never heated and the guy never wore a coat. Consequently, he was known as Freezing Freddie Dwyer or Fucking Freezing Freddie Dwyer.

'He is off his fucking nut. You should have seen him, Pat. He was popping pills like there was no tomorrow.'

The Williams brothers all nodded in unison and this made Pat want to laugh at them now. He had more sense than to give in to the urge though.

'It's the purple hearts, see, he can't get on without them.'

Pat nodded sagely as they lit cigarettes, and then he poured them out large Scotches. This had become a ritual.

The smell of whisky and cigarette smoke still couldn't cover the stench of dirt and blood that seemed to permeate the place. The warehouses had witnessed many deaths over the years and the bodies thrown into the Thames had either made their way to Tilbury or out to the open sea depending on the tides. Either way, they were gone, and that was all that mattered to these men and their earlier counterparts.

As they sipped their drinks and chatted, money exchanged hands and the bags of green, sweet-smelling herb were put into the boots of cars.

Dicky and Pat went back years and had an easy camaraderie. They were both products of their environment and knew the pavements better than they knew their own families. It was home to them and they were comfortable with it.

Lately, they had entered into a partnership of sorts that had been as enjoyable as it had been lucrative. Between them, they had sewn up most of the main scams and, even though no one had named them outright as the new Faces on the block, people were approaching them and asking their permission before undertaking any kind of skulduggery on their streets.

They found this amusing, as well as indicative of the way they were now being regarded by the main players in their fields. If the average man on the street was giving them their due, it meant Lily Law would not be far behind them. They acknowledged this as part of the price they paid for their lifestyles and both wanted to make sure they stayed this side of the visiting room. They loved the notoriety, but they also had no intention of being five-minute wonders. Here today, going down tomorrow, was not in their plans. They wanted to be around for many years to come and they wanted to maximise their potential. In short, they thought, like many a man before them, that they were too clever to be caught.

'One thing about that freezing fucker though, he loves a gossip and he hears everything. He told me a little old bloke has been bandying our names about.'

Pat nodded. This was, it seemed, old news to him. He didn't say a word and eventually the silence was too heavy for the brothers.

'So what do we do now?' Dicky sounded stressed, unsure of himself.

Pat shrugged.

It was a statement not a question, and Dicky was more than aware of the underlying menace in Pat's voice as he snapped. 'We do what we always do: keep it fucking quiet. That is what gets people's collars felt, too much fucking rabbit. Remember the old adage, careless talk and all that.' His eyes were cold, dead. His voice was without any kind of inflection at all.

Dicky grinned. His smile was, like a lot of his contemporaries, ruined by a combination of bad diet and missing teeth. In Dicky's case though, it made him look amiable, foolish even. A mistake many men had made over the years. His demeanour hid a vicious and vengeful personality that came to the fore whenever he felt he was not being given his due. This was another thing he had in common with Pat Brodie: neither of them looked the least bit capable of the violence that bubbled away under the surface of their friendly, smiling faces.

Dicky though, brought up in a family of thirteen, was a pack-fighter. Like dogs, if one of the Williams brother went off, the others followed suit. Pat was a loner, a dirty fighter who would use anything that came to hand, be it a bottle, bicycle chain or gun. He had no preference as long as whatever it was would cause untold pain.

'I think it's time we gave everyone a fright, Pat, you know, talked to a few old Faces and reminded them about what can happen when someone speaks out of turn.'

Pat had heard this from Dicky a lot over the last year or so and he knew that he could not hold him back indefinitely. He had a point though, so he sighed gently and nodded his agreement.

The fact that Dicky consulted him before he did anything of import spoke volumes, not just to Patrick Brodie, but also to Dicky's numerous siblings and their hangers-on. Pat had no hangers-on, he had people who worked for him and he kept them, for the most part, at arm's length. A few were invited into his inner sanctum, but even they had no real knowledge of the man they professed to know.

He had no actual friends though, not in the real sense. Dicky was the nearest person to have earned that title. But Pat had a lot of acquaintances and he also had the knack of making people feel that they had his full attention, even though he rarely listened to anything unless it benefited him or his family.

He knew it was this aloofness that was the key to his success and he found that now he actually cultivated it. Used it to his advantage.

'Soon, OK? Give me a few days to think about it.'

Dicky knew he was in and he stronged it as Pat had known he would from the outset. He waited patiently for him to get to the crux of his conversation.

'Come and meet this tame filth I've found, eh, mouthy little ponce he is, always shooting his mouth off and chancing his arm. Now we own him, well you do actually, it's your club he fucked up in. Though he don't realise that yet, of course, he thought Lenny Donnelly owned it. He is a bit of a lad, typical Old Bill, more mouth than cows got cunt, and a personality like a pair of nylon socks. However, he is also on his way to what he perceives as greatness, mainly through the pursuit of promotion in Old Billery. In short, Pat, he is a cunt with an earhole in the right places, and a knob that rises on a regular basis. Know what I mean?'

Pat nodded. Poor Dicky was telling him nothing he did not already know. He had been one step ahead of everyone all his life, had had to be, but as always he kept his own counsel. People only know what you tell them. And it was true. People gave out their whole life stories to anyone and everyone without a second's thought. Stand at a bus stop, sit in a strange pub, get banged up, and someone would always give you their life story. It was as if they were trying to prove they existed.

Dicky smiled nervously, the silence as always making him slightly uneasy, and Pat refilled their glasses without uttering a word.

'We'll keep our traps shut as always, Pat, keep our business to ourselves, but this way, we can also get a bit of insurance for the future.'

Pat grinned.

The point had been taken but the subject was now closed.

Detective Inspector Harry Lomond was drunk. Really drunk, and his stomach was just about to vacate its contents.

He was in a hostess club in Soho, he was without his trousers, and he was also convinced that the walls were breathing. LSD would do that to a body. Dilys Crawford, known as Sabina while at work, was sitting beside him, bored out of her brains.

An unnatural redhead, she had small breasts, large thighs and a mouth that was legendary. She had three kids, a husband doing a ten-stretch in Dartmoor and more varicose veins than the Michelin man. Still, men sought her out, and stone-cold sober she sorted them out quickly and efficiently. She would never have full sex with a punter, a nosh. A bit of tit and a laugh was about as far as she would go with them. Most men were happy with that, and as for her, she would slip under the table and do it, so even paying for a hotel room was not part of the equation.

Tonight though, she was not even bothering to pour the champagne on the floor, a ruse many hostesses used so they didn't get drunk and ripped off. This ponce was so far gone, fucking Donald Campbell would have trouble keeping up with him.

A stripper came on the stage and she sighed in relief. Candy did an act with a snake and a trilby hat that was so outrageous it left all the hostesses free to relax, have a fag and work out their next moves.

Her next move was to pass this filth on to Dicky, the sooner the better as far as she was concerned. When she saw Pat walk in with the Williams brothers, she sighed with relief. She would suck off a fucking tramp if he had the money, but she balked at touching Old Bill. They were about as much use as a handbrake on the proverbial canoe. She had done her bit for England, she just wanted her poke and a cab home. Harry was still smiling drunkenly when she dumped him in the basement of the club.

Lil settled the child once more, and sitting down at the kitchen table she yawned noisily.

As tired as she was, she loved every second of her life so much that even a fractious child was bearable. As she looked around the kitchen she sighed with sheer contentment. Her life was so different and she thanked God for that every minute of every day.

Even though it was three-thirty in the morning and she had no idea where her husband was, or what he was doing, she didn't fret. The life that she now lived was what she classified as normal. It had been like this since day one. Naturally close-mouthed, she didn't question Pat and he didn't expect her to. It was a perfect arrangement for them both.

He would turn up at some point, he always did, and she would cook for him, chat to him and make love to him. It had never occurred to her that the life she lived was not the norm for most young women; she never questioned him about his whereabouts as any other young wife would.

All she understood was that he was out grafting for her, and because of that, she had everything a girl could want, from a twin-tub washing machine to a set of Carmen rollers. Never in her life had she been so cared for, or felt so safe. She depended on him for everything, from the food she ate to the light she read by. He provided for her and their son, more than provided, and she was happy enough with that. Since her marriage she had money coming out of her ears and she spent it like it was going out of fashion. The best of everything, was Pat's mantra and she enjoyed having just that.

It all seemed very fragile at times, precarious even, but she put that down to the way she had been brought up. The fear of her life collapsing around her was never far from her mind, and she struggled to stop the fear enveloping her. All her life she had felt as if she had been waiting for something good to happen, and now it had, the feeling was still there, but it was mixed with a frightening dread that sometimes felt stronger and more real than anything else.

Dicky was laughing. Pat had beaten the filth until he had passed out. Whether that was through the drink or the ministrations of the prostitute combined with the alcohol, or Pat's bruised knuckles, no one was sure. The lesson had been duly administered. From a friendly drinking session, it had eventually deteriorated into a drunken beating. Lomond was now theirs and he would realise it as soon as he sobered up.

On the cold floor, Harry Lomond was having trouble breathing, although no one in the room was worried. In the hostess club they had seen so many Old Bill gasping for breath it was a running joke.

Filth like Lomond were renowned skirt chasers, he was typical of his ilk. A bully, a bruiser, and ultimately a coward. The strange thing was, no one minded a capture off a straight Old Bill. It was expected if not welcomed, but it was a pure collar. Everyone was generous if it occurred, inasmuch as they had a mutual respect for each other. A capture off a bent filth, however, was a different story, it was a complete and utter gutter. Bent filth convicted anyone they were asked to, or paid to, depending on whether they owed money, or needed money. No one wanted the aggravation or indeed humiliation of being banged up by someone they had no respect for, or worse still, for something they didn't do. Serious Bill feeling your collar at least afforded you the respect you were due. Bang to rights, it was a fair cop. A changeling on your case though, told you and all your contemporaries that you had been fitted up for a crime you never committed, to get you out of the way usually, so that whatever skulduggery you might actually be involved in would now be taken over by a different Face. Or you had been well and truly grassed by someone close to you, not even an enemy. Either way, this was seen by police and criminals alike as an unsafe conviction. Especially for the person who brought it about in the first place.

For a judicial system to work, it had to be adhered to by the people who had sworn to uphold it. Criminals broke the law, the boys in blue nicked them, that was how the world worked. No one liked it, but it was accepted. Once that all broke down of course, it was a different ball game. A plastic judge was a menace to society in far more ways than the man he relegated to prison. If they put away a body that they knew was innocent then it stood to reason that they knew the real villain was still walking the streets. It also cast aspersions on every case they had ever been in contact with: if they fitted up one person, how many more could be in the frame?

To uphold the law the judge had to be beyond reproach, something that did not apply, of course, to the men they were not only judging, but sentencing to prison. They were expected to lie and cheat, that was all part of the game. There was nothing worse than being lectured in a courtroom by someone who you knew to be morally bankrupt. A jury trial was about the police making sure that they had enough evidence to convict the accused; the jury had to have enough facts presented to them to convince them of their guilt. These laws were brought about to safeguard innocent people who, through no fault of their own, may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. The police had to establish not only a motive but also gather enough evidence to put the person on trial in that right place at that right time.

Just because someone might look good for a conviction didn't mean they deserved one. The law was there to give them a fair trial. You expected the alleged criminals to lie, you did not expect the trial judge to already have reached a verdict before the evidence was shown or for a policeman to take an oath yet lie, knowing that the job they held made people assume they were telling the truth.

Honesty was supposed to be their forte. Unfortunately, the consumer society they inhabited and the relaxing of the gambling laws had soon put paid to that. This was one of the main reasons why the police and judges were being sought out and bought up, not only as an early-warning system in the case of the police, but also to even out some of the judicial playing fields when court appearances could not be avoided and bail was a necessity.

Lomond was about to find out that, like any grass, filth or criminal, once you perverted the course of justice for your own ends, no one wanted you. No one trusted you and no one cared what happened to you. By the very nature of your dual lifestyle you were well and truly on your own. Lomond was now neither fish nor fowl. The strength of his position had overnight become his biggest weakness. He was now like a tame guard dog. If he worked well enough, he might get fed. But he would also be made to realise that there were plenty more puppies from the litter he came from.

'You don't think he is gonna die do you?' Dicky said.

Lomond was breathing with difficulty now.

Pat shrugged. The man on the dirt-strewn floor disgusted him. 'Who cares.'

Lily walked into the prison and felt her stomach heave.

She hated the smell of the place and she hated the feeling of confinement. The walls were grimy, the aroma was putrid and to crown it all, she was here to pass on a message to someone she didn't even like. Kevin Craig was a man with little imagination, a vicious temper and a vindictive personality.

He suited his surroundings as far as Lil was concerned. Wormwood Scrubs was a shithouse although Du Cane Road had been a nice place in its day. Hammersmith Hospital was next door and there were still some nice houses around and about. She liked the area but hated the prison. Every time she stepped inside she felt as if the walls were coming in on her and she wondered how anyone stood it.

To be locked up was, to her, the worst thing that could happen to anyone. To have no say whatsoever over your life was a terrifying thought, and she should know, her home life had been the same.

The whole place stank of despair and front. The front most people put on for family and friends when they were looking at a long sentence. Front was how you coped with being told by a judge that you were being locked away for the best years of your life, that you were a menace to society and prison was all you would know from now on. Front was pretending that you accepted what had happened. Front was what made you get up in the morning after such an abomination, and was what made you carry on through every day after that. Front was, in the end, all you had to rely on.

Front was also, unfortunately, more often than not what had put the majority of the convicts there in the first place.

Kevin Craig sat down and Lil smiled at him tremulously.

'Thanks for coming.' He afforded her the respect her husband's reputation automatically afforded her. 'That's all right, mate.' Her smile was wide, but her nerves were making her feel faint.

She was heavily pregnant once more and her huge belly was evident as she sat down and tried to make herself comfortable.

As she looked around the visiting room she felt the fear once more. She looked at the women with their kids; dilapidated, scruffy, trying to be cheerful, trying to make some kind of connection with the men who had fathered their children and who might not hold any of them close again for years.

This was all her nightmares come to life, losing her Pat to the prison system. Seeing him banged up and vulnerable and watching him shrink a bit more as every year passed, she knew that her physical make-up would make her seek solace elsewhere even though the man would not, could not, ever match up to the man she had lost through no fault of her own.

Kevin smiled at her then as if reading her mind. 'Tell Pat and Dicky that I have put me hand up, wiped me mouth and took the onus off them. But my old woman has to be taken care of. I am only a bagman, I collected the rents, that's all. Make sure the protection is paid; they owe me, they owe me big time.'

Lil didn't hear the underlying threat in his voice, she just felt relieved; this was something she could cope with, something she knew all about. He was telling her what she was supposed to be telling him. Keep your trap shut, your head down and your arse up and everything would be all right.

Kevin's wife, Amy, was a mate of sorts. They lived near each other and they talked if they met in the market. She knew his kids by sight and she talked to him about them, assuring him that they would be well taken care of. That they would not go without, even though she knew that they would be going without the most important person in their life after their mother.

Although, from what she had heard from Amy, she wasn't so sure about that now. But she knew better than to say these thoughts out loud.

Instead, she told this troubled man that he was not to worry, his family were safe, and at the same time she was praying that she would never have to visit her husband or children in a place like this.

Lil hated the whole depressing aura of prison. It was like a living tomb to her. People lived inside the prison walls, but they might as well have been long dead because they were only existing, and that was not what life was supposed to be about.

'Lil is sorting it, relax.' Patrick sounded far more confident than he felt, but he knew that Dicky would not pick up on that. Kevin had been nabbed completely by accident, and they were all still trying to clear up the mess.

Pat was shrewd enough to know that Kevin had been served up, and he would be very interested to know who the culprit was. It had to be someone close, because he kept his business dealings quiet; even Dicky didn't have any real idea of how enormous his empire had become. But then again, no one did. He used different people for different things. Never telling his right hand what the left hand was doing.

It worked better that way. People only know what you tell them. Well, if you didn't tell them anything then you were safe.

So whoever had put Kevin away had either a working knowledge of his business practices, or a vested interest in seeing Kevin Craig off the pavement. The former he doubted, the latter he suspected.

Kevin had never had the gift of friendship. He was like a fucking old woman, looking for slights everywhere, taking offence at nothing and, worst of all, he thought he was the lynchpin of the protection business.

People amazed him: if they were so fucking clever why were they on a wage? Why depend on someone else for their daily bread? So he had once had affiliations with Barry Caldwell, why would he think that gave him any street credibility? Barry had been mugged off, he was yesterday's news. He would see about bailing Kevin out if he could, he would concentrate on lessening the blow of his sentence, and finally he would take care of his family until such time as the courts saw fit to release him back into society. It was the usual, it was what anyone could expect in his employ and it wasn't fucking rocket science. It also meant he was about two grand down a week, and that was the real priority here; when all was said and done, he wasn't about to lose any income. Still, he would find out the score soon enough, and like any problem, the sooner it was dealt with, the better.

Lil was still nervous after her prison visit. The place made her nerves bad, undermined her life in every way imaginable. Reminded her of what could happen, reminded her of how difficult her life could easily become.

But it also reminded her of how she had to keep these thoughts to herself. All her life she had felt as if she was walking on quicksand and that feeling overwhelmed her every time she walked through the prison doors.

It was an ending, a big lump, it was society's way of telling people they were being excluded, it was also like a time warp. All her life she had heard the phrase 'let the punishment fit the crime', and she was agreeable to that.

Money and property were what got people banged up for years, and as her husband now fell into that category, it bothered her. Especially as she knew that the prison lifestyle would kill him.

But it was so true, crimes against money and property guaranteed a seriously long sentence, murder and sex crimes guaranteed a much lesser sentence. It was to her, at first, an unbelievable truth. She had believed it, because it had been explained to her by her husband. Now though, the papers had proved the case in point, and it scared her. That her husband would do less time for murdering a complete stranger on the street than for robbing a bank was outrageous. He was breaking the law of course, but how was that a worse offence than a murder or a rape? It was these thoughts that were stopping her from sleeping at night.

It did occur to her that he might be a murderer, but she forced those thoughts away. If he did murder someone there would have to be a good reason for it, she was convinced. It was like her mother had said, it would be like an occupational hazard to him. But he wouldn't do that, she knew he wouldn't do anything like that.

As she poured out a cup of tea, she looked around her kitchen and tried to take in everything about it. Compared to her upbringing, this place was luxury, yet even she was now aware that they did not live within her husband's means. They lived well but not excessively so. Pat always said that the first interest from Old Bill was if there was a nice house and a decent motor and no real means of employment. His legal business would have provided this standard of living so that is how they lived. It was still a better lifestyle than most people's.

If she was to be taken away from here at a moment's notice, what would she really remember? What would she miss? Like her husband, she lived for the moment. If it all fell out of bed, she would pack a bag and walk away from here without a backward glance. Somewhere in her head she knew that was wrong. She had a child, another on the way, she should feel settled here instead of feeling like this was just another stop. Somewhere to sit and wait for the man who dominated her existence. Yet she knew she wasn't alone, that a lot of the women in her position lived their lives in exactly the same way.

For the first time though, she was really worried about what the future might bring. Pat wasn't a fool, he would dodge the law as best he could, but, pregnant once more, she was terrified of being alone. Seeing the prisons up close and personal, she was frightened of the power the thought of them had over her. As she looked at her little son playing with his toys on the lino, she felt the familiar sickness wash over her. Patrick said it was just the baby; once the new one arrived she would be OK, but she wasn't so sure.

She had the same feelings in the prison as she had felt as a child growing up. The utter loneliness that pervaded the place was bad enough, but to then be told when to eat, sleep and even shit, was terrifying. To live your whole life on a rota, even worse, a rota planned and executed by people you would cross the road to avoid, was to her the worst thing she could ever imagine.

Being at the mercy of other people was something she understood very well, and it was something she hated with a passion that surprised her.

She picked up Pat Junior and held him close, even though he wriggled to get away from her to continue his playing. She needed bodily contact constantly: after being starved of affection for so long, she now craved it desperately. Her husband's arm across her belly was like her life's blood, a necessity.

Since Pat had started using her to visit and relay messages, she was now frighteningly aware of just how precarious her life actually was. She put the squealing child down and lit a cigarette with trembling hands. Needing people brought its own set of problems; at times like this she wondered if she had been better off as she was before. Then she had felt she was missing out on something, she just had not known what that something was. Now she knew, it was even worse.

She took a deep breath and sighed once more.

Life, after all, was what you made it, and Pat was making sure her life was wonderful. Even to her own ears that sounded hollow.

Chapter Three

Everyone, especially the police, knew that Pat had taken out his arch rivals. And as luck would have it, nobody, including the police, cared. Billy Spot's demise had been on the cards for a while, it was just a case of who would be responsible, as opposed to when it would happen. Pat Brodie had been a contender for a while and the sensible money had been on him.

When he had wiped out Spot he had opened up the West End for everyone. Unlike Spot and his cronies though, Pat and his cohorts were quite happy to let people work their trades in relative peace and tranquillity. Providing they made sure that a percentage of the money earned made its way into their pockets they were happy. Life was good for everyone; Pat was fair, and the numerous Williams brothers who were on his leash were amicable and easy enough to get along with. Business thrived for everyone, from the street vendors to the club owners. Life was easier than it had been for years and, as Pat and his cohorts made a point of being seen on the very streets they policed, no one was worried about late-night visits and protection money being demanded twice in one night. Spot had not watched over his troops and that had been when the rot had set in. So now, everyone was earning, and everyone was feeling relaxed enough to unload the shotguns they kept under their bars and hide away the handguns they might have kept in their cars.

Until, that is, they had all been brought to the notice of the local filth by a disgruntled punter. Kevin Craig had been served up by a man called Denny Harris and, even though it had been a worry at the time, it had ended up being a blessing in disguise.

Denny had a grievance, a fair grievance as it turned out, because Kevin was a greedy ponce who was taking more than he was entitled to. He was in effect shaking him down twice, something that normally would have been frowned upon by everyone concerned. That, however, was another story. The main thrust of the whole saga was that Denny had grassed, and even though Kevin was out of order, there was still no justifiable reason in their world for Denny's outrageous actions. Grassing anyone up to the Old Bill was tantamount to treason, and Denny's mistake came at a time when a well-earned lesson was not only needed, but was also welcomed by the powers that be.

Pat and the Williams brothers knew that in order to cement their new-found notoriety, they would need to make an example of someone. In short, Billy Spot and Barry Caldwell had been big fish, and big fish expected to be challenged eventually. Now they needed to show the smaller fish, the hustlers, the pimps, the bookies and the club owners, the people who would ultimately be their bread and butter, that they had their fingers on every pulse in the smoke, and would know immediately if anyone was trying to hold back any of their earnings. Pat knew that anyone who was waltzing through life without paying their due was going to brag about it eventually, and because they had had a touch without any kind of redress, they would not see them as a real threat. Instead, they would eventually take on more businesses without consulting anyone about it first, and that would be how the rot could set in. The first serious mugging off had to be sorted quickly, violently and with the maximum of fuss. If they let it go, people would soon cotton on, and that was how you lost face, because it was the smaller businesses that were the staple of any empire. The rents, as they were known, were what kept everyone on their toes. If you would go to war for a few quid, it was assumed you would be capable of murder for the larger amounts. This was a natural dilemma for anyone who was in control of any business, legit or otherwise.

So Denny, by rights, should have brought his problem to them, and they would have sorted it out. Everyone would have been a winner, Kevin would have had his wrist slapped and it would have been a five-minute wonder and of no consequence to anyone. Instead, Denny had actually had the gall to overlook them, to try to sort it out with Kevin, who was a bona fide arsehole at the best of times, and so far down the pecking order he was virtually classed as a serf. And when that had failed and knowing he had naused himself up with Kevin's bosses, he had then had the audacity to go to the Old Bill. Unbelievable as it was, this had been what had happened.

So, all in all, what was an abortion had actually ended up working in everyone's favour. Denny had been outed as the treacherous bastard he was, and had been the recipient of a world-class hammering. If he walked again it would be a miracle, and on top of that, as a known grass, he was also off everyone's Christmas card list for the foreseeable future.

The Williamses had let it be known that the filth involved was, as luck would have it, one of theirs, and Pat had ostentatiously given Denny's business interests over to a local firm who were known to make themselves busy and earn a few quid, but who would never be a contender for anyone's crown because they were not the sharpest knives in the drawer. All in all, it had been perfect PR.

Taking their due was one thing, and they knew that, keeping it though, was another story entirely. Now the word was out that they had a finger in all the main pies, life was easier than ever.

Grasses had to be dealt with severely because they did not just affect people's livelihoods, they could also be the reason why men were separated from their families for years. Children lost their fathers, wives lost their husbands, mothers lost their sons. It was the ultimate piss-take, the ultimate tuck-up.

Consequently, a clear message had to be sent out; the culprit had to bear the scars of their treachery for everyone to see. It was unacceptable behaviour, all the more heinous because they were people that had been trusted, had been allowed access to the world of the very people they had betrayed. In short, they had to be trounced publicly and with the maximum of pain and humiliation, so anyone else harbouring thoughts of the big time would take a step back and have a serious rethink of their situation.

Denny now bore the mark of the grass, otherwise known as the permanent grin. It was a throwback from the fifties, but even twenty years later it still did its job. His mouth had been opened from ear to ear with a boxcutter's knife. Every time Denny looked in the mirror he would be reminded of what he had done.

The scars would also guarantee that he would be shunned by anyone in the life, no matter how far he tried to roam. He was a pariah, an outcast, but more importantly he was a fool to himself. Even his brothers had turned their back on him, as would his sons eventually.

Pat was still riding the crest of his own wave. The Williams brothers were his partners and they were all earning serious wedge. They had plenty of people working the pavements for them and plenty of time now for leisure pursuits, and as the owners of massage parlours, gambling dens and hostess clubs, their leisure time and their business meetings tended to be held in these places.

Pat, though, made a point of going home, unlike the Williamses who felt they had their own personal playgrounds. It was hard for any man to live their kind of lives and still want to go home to the little woman. The wife was respected, loved even, but her main attraction was that she would not put herself about. The men, however, did not see that as any kind of barrier to enjoying themselves. It was the nature of their very lifestyles; spare, or strange as it was often referred to, was everywhere they turned. Even for the men who were not exactly the answer to a maiden's prayer.

Girls lined up to be with them and the men chose to believe that it was because of their handsome faces and sparkling personalities. They forgot that these were women who were already predisposed to sleeping with any man for financial gain. That these were women who were better actresses in the kip than the cream of the Hollywood divas. These were women and girls who saw sleeping with one man, whoever he might be, as a better deal than chancing their arm every night with whoever wandered into their very limited orbit. With a Face, a criminal, they at least had some respect, and they also had regular money and a proper in, say if a new club opened and a head girl might be needed. They were someone already in the foreground, they knew the ropes, were trustworthy and above all, would keep any secrets that might emerge. They would also swallow if one of the newer, fresher, younger girls caught their man's eye. They had what they wanted, why would they care?

They were perfect mistresses, their whole lifestyle stopped them ever getting above their station, and it also guaranteed an affection and loyalty that would last them for years. The wives, however, had something these women would never have; they had their husbands' respect and because of that they were safe even if they put on weight, lost interest in sex or became a religious fanatic. The legal always had the edge, and a sensible legal used that to her advantage, turned a blind eye to her husband's sexual gymnastics and enjoyed the fruits of her husband's endeavours. It was nothing personal, it was just an occupational hazard.

Even Pat took a flier occasionally; a bit of strange was on most men's agenda and he was no different, he just had more access to it than the average guy. But that was as far as it went with him, the odd flier. Never the same bird and always without any kind of wooing. No drink bought, no meal provided, and definitely no offer of a lift home. He did not want a repeat performance, and he did not want to get involved in their lives in any way, shape or form. He got a blow job and that was it. Something he would never have asked of, or expected from, his Lil. And nine times out of ten, only then when Lil was indisposed through pregnancy or after a birth. It was nothing more than an urge. It had nothing to do with his life, or his family.

This was another reason he was respected by his peers. There was no real talk about him, in fact no one really knew anything about him. Even the Williamses had to admit that much.

As for Lil, she attended church regularly, she was still young enough to hold his interest and he loved her and what she represented to him. And in her own way she was now a lynchpin in his organisation. He used her and she was shrewd enough to understand that. She was the only person he could really trust.

Lil still visited the prisons and passed on information; it had never occurred to her not to do it, her husband expected it and she did as he asked. It made her feel needed, a part of it all.

She also felt that, at nineteen with two handsome sons, and enough money to keep her in a way that most people only dreamt about, she could turn a blind eye to any rumours or suspicions she might harbour about her husband.

Lily Brodie, nee Diamond, was a great believer in what you didn't know could not hurt you. She had known instinctively when he had been unfaithful to her the first time. She had felt his shame, had breathed in his treachery, yet at the same time she had always known that the day would come. She didn't know how she knew that; she had been so naïve sexually, still was in many ways, but somewhere in the back of her mind she had registered that fact.

She also knew that only a complete fool would cause an international incident over it. On some level she knew without a doubt that it meant nothing to him, and she also knew that it must therefore mean nothing to her. He was not like the average man, and if she tried to make him like that, she would only set herself up for failure. She had seen the consequences of the women who had tried to tame their mates and it had always ended in tears. The men eventually outed even the most virginal of wives, the mothers of their legal children, because the women had been too much like hard work. No woman, no matter who they were, could compete with youth and the mystery of a silky pair of drawers and a lusty laugh. So she decided early on in her marriage to overlook his other life; it was the only way she could even hope to survive it.

No matter how much her mother tried to poison her mind, she knew that the woman who could lure Pat away from her for any length of time had not been born yet.

When they went out together she saw the way he was treated and she knew the temptation that was under his nose on a daily basis. Lily had the same sexual drive as her husband and so she appreciated that he had the opportunity to take advantage of it by the very nature of his business commitments. Men like Pat Brodie needed to take advantage of their freedom because they never knew when it was going to be taken away from them.

Ignoring it all was, she knew, a mindset. She just had to accept it as something that was part and parcel of his lifestyle and she was not about to throw away the best thing that had ever happened to her over something that was so trivial to her, and so unimportant to him that he forgot about it within minutes of it happening.

She had decided that she would rather live with him, and all that entailed, than be without him. She had also realised that she had to be more to him than just his wife, than just the mother of his children. She had to make a connection with him that would give them something other than their shared children in common. She was determined to become an important part of his life in her own right.

He was going to be unfaithful to her, it was something she expected and accepted. It was inevitable. She was a realist, and she hoped that her honesty would not be rewarded by her breaking her heart over his disloyalty. At least his forays into the world of strange were not a regular occurrence; unlike most of his contemporaries.

The first time it happened she had felt as if her heart had been ripped out of her chest; now she felt contempt for a woman who would allow herself to be used like that, even as she pitied her, because the life the girl lived ensured that encounters with men like her husband were a foregone conclusion.

Lily had an innate kindness that allowed her to see everyone in the best possible light. Once she had seen the inside of a club she had not seen the women as whores, or rivals in any way. Instead, she had seen them as victims. Victims of men in that they were forced by circumstances to utilise the only asset they possessed. If she had daughters, she was determined that they would be educated enough to make different choices if their life went pear-shaped.

She had once gone to one of the hostess clubs to relay a message after one of her prison visits and been witness to a punter causing World War Three over a bill. She had watched as the doorman tried to calm the situation and seen how the bill had finally been paid in full, without the hostess getting her fee. She had stepped in, and before the punter had left the premises she had seen to it that the girl was also paid in full. The doorman was left in no doubt that the hostesses were to be his priority in future as they were the ones who brought the men into the club in the first place.

Without the girls, why would the men pay the inflated prices? Why should a girl spend the best part of the night talking the man out of his money for the club and then be left out when the punter was asked to weigh out at the end of the night?

To Lil, it was ludicrous, but then she was too young to realise that the girls in the clubs were ten a penny. Pretty girls were commonplace and women willing to sit on the meat seats were legion. Men walked away from their kids without a backward glance; women, however, were not afforded that luxury, nor would they want to anyway. But they still had to earn a living so they could feed and clothe their kids, which was why the clubs were inundated with women.

The doorman, however, had humoured her that night and the girls had fallen in love with her.

It had been a difficult situation for Patrick Brodie when he listened to Lil; he had never in his life been expected to see a brass all right. But the brass in question had been an acquaintance of Lil's in the cigarette factory. Seeing her reduced to hostessing because her husband had gone on the trot, leaving her with three kids and a mountain of debt, had made the now-powerful and fair-minded Lily Brodie angry. And she let Patrick know it in no uncertain terms.

She liked the feel of the clubs anyway; she enjoyed the camaraderie of the girls, it reminded her of the cigarette factory and how she had finally felt a part of something. She found that she liked being outside the home with other women, and it brought her closer to her husband. Like any young girl, Lily craved excitement and suddenly she had it in abundance.

Now that Pat wanted her to do more in the clubs she was realising just how hard the life was for the women who had to live it. She didn't yet understand that it was the kindness inside her that her husband was exploiting because he saw the way the girls reacted to her, and how she dealt with them. Lil was a natural head girl, and she was not averse to seeing a punter slaughtered if he was not feeling inclined to pay his hugely inflated bill.

Pat was thrilled that his Lily, his heart, was willing to work for him and take the burden of the girls off his shoulders. She was now going from club to club, keeping an eye out and making sure that things were run in an orderly fashion. She had a knack for it and she also had a nose for trouble-makers, both male and female. She was good with money and tallied the takings up quicker than he ever could. She was an asset and he was pleased and amazed that she was willing to work with him, even after finding out first-hand what he was involved in. Unlike the other wives, Lily was a real asset; in the days when women were either used or exploited, she was making use of her acumen for both their benefits.

He had thought that the prostitution would have gone against the grain, she was so prim and proper in many ways. But she seemed to understand better than he did what made the women tick, and what made them sell themselves on a daily basis.

She was making her mark and she was also making sure that the clubs ran smoothly and that gave him more time for his other businesses. Some of the people he dealt with were not impressed. They saw him as being pussy-whipped but he always pointed out, when they dared say so to his face, that at the end of the day, if he couldn't trust her, who the fuck could he trust?

Lil was putting the boys to bed. She was already dressed up to go out and she was trying unsuccessfully to blot out her mother's voice.

Since her marriage, her mother had made herself busy. At first, she had been a dream, although it had taken Lily a while before she had trusted her enough to let her into her new life.

After the birth of Lance though, her second son, her mother had reverted back to her old ways. Finding fault, making remarks and it was getting more and more difficult to pretend that all was well with them.

Annie loved her first grandson, Patrick Junior, but Lance, she was absolutely besotted with him. Since the day he had emerged from her womb, a month early, kicking and screaming, she had been like a woman demented. It was as if she had birthed him herself.

Now, as Lil looked down at her boys, she wondered why she didn't feel the same way. She loved her second son, but he was such a strange child, he stared at her as if he was sizing her up. Waiting for her to make a rick of some sort. He was a handsome child, with a shock of dark hair like his father, and with Annie's pale-grey eyes. He was striking, and people had remarked on his colouring since the day he was born. But Lil's guilt over this child stemmed from the fact that she found touching him slightly distasteful. She had stopped breast-feeding him as soon as she could, reverting to the bottle with what her mother saw as unseemly haste, even though it meant she could nurse him for hours on end. Lance's skin always felt clammy to the touch, and unlike young Pat, he had a big-boned feel to him that made her uncomfortable. He was also very well endowed, which gave his father cause for ribald comments, yet made her feel uncomfortable with him. He lay there at three years old, legs splayed and still in nappies, making her mother comment that here was a boy who would do things in his own time. But Lil thought it was laziness that kept him in nappies, nothing more. Lance let Pat Junior do everything for him, and it felt wrong. He manipulated everyone around him, especially Annie. And he did it without any effort on his part at all. Even Patrick was enamoured of him but, as bad as it made her feel, and no matter how much the guilt ate at her, she couldn't see this child as everyone else did.

Yet she loved him, and in her own way she protected him, because he was hers, she had birthed him. He was her responsibility and, unlike her mother who had left her to her own devices, she was determined that none of her children would ever feel abandoned, unwanted or unloved. They were hers, and she would die for them.

As she bent to kiss Lance's head, his peculiar smell of baby sweat and urine once more made her shudder. She couldn't figure out why he made her feel so uncomfortable and the feelings that he engendered made her question her role as a mother.

Pat Junior was lying in the other bed smiling at her, and his smile lifted her heart. This was a child she could really love. He was happy, healthy and, unlike Lance, he talked to her and reacted with her. Lance said few words, and it wasn't because he couldn't, he just didn't want to.

'Night, Mum.'

She smiled at her eldest child, and her heart swelled with pride. His dark good looks and startling blue eyes mark a winning combination. He looked Irish, and he had the blarney, as Pat was always joking.

He was all for cuddling his sweet-smelling mother and she, as always, obliged.

'Off to sleep now, baby, and I'll bring you back a Caramac.'

He was thrilled, his sweets were assured and his eyes were already closing as she snuck from the room.

Annie was making a cup of tea and Lil, as always, felt the burden of her. She felt responsible for people, even though she knew in her heart of hearts that it wasn't her job. Her mother had treated her worse than a dog all her life. Pat questioned her about it constantly but, as she tried to explain, her mother was the only mother she was ever going to get. Like with Lance, no matter what she felt inside, they were her family and she would never ever let them down. No one really guessed about her feelings for her younger son and if it was left to her no one ever would.

As Annie laced her tea liberally with a bottle of Bushmills whiskey, Lil forced a smile and said gaily, 'I'm off, Mum.'

'You're looking more and more like the women you are supposed to be earning from.' It was supposed to be funny, but the underlying sarcasm was there all the same.

Lil looked into the faded eyes so like her own and felt a sudden urge to scream. She felt stifled, suffocated and, like Patrick Brodie, she wondered why she put herself through all this day after day. Her mother was like a snake, dripping her venom into her sons' ears. Guilt was a strange thing, a destructive thing.

As Lil walked from the house, the silence was deafening and the atmosphere was heavy with unspoken thoughts and unwanted emotions.

In the cool evening air, she was finally able to breathe easily once more. She gulped it into her lungs as if her life depended on it.

Ruby Tyler smiled at Pat as he looked over the club; he was searching for someone in particular though no one would have guessed that from his demeanour.

He saw Ruby's eyes on him and he wished he had not been so drunk the night before. Ruby had ambitions for the big time, and now she had serviced him she was expecting some kind of reward. She saw him as a step-up, as a wage packet for the foreseeable future. She was not, he realised, a woman who would be shrugged off easily; in fact, she was already looking decidedly piqued at his lack of interest in her. Ruby, unfortunately for them both, had a very high opinion of herself.

As Pat walked through the club into his small office, he knew she would not be far behind him.

He was pouring himself a Scotch when he heard her enter the room: the door closed quietly and he took a deep breath before saying, 'What can I do you for?'

As he turned to face her, he marvelled at the stupidity of women. Especially women like Ruby. She was a sort, an earner. That was her prerogative of course, but it was also a good reason for her to realise that he wouldn't be looking for a long relationship with her just because she had blown him off once.

Ruby, for her part, was well aware that she was a good-looking girl, but she also saw herself as a bit of a shrewdie. She thought she had enough nous and enough body to tame the wildest of men. Patrick Brodie was a prize by anyone's estimation and she saw herself as the new contender for his affections. He had a couple of kids with his wife so he must be getting bored, and he was a Face. In her book, he was in line for the full Ruby Tyler treatment. She wanted the notoriety that being his pull would bring, and she wanted an easy ride in the club as would be her right as his bird. Ruby saw herself as a realist: she knew he would never marry her, or live with her. She would be strictly his outside bird. And she was content with that and all it would bring her. He had singled her out, she had obliged and now she was determined to make the most of the opportunity he had afforded her. As she had remarked to her best friend, she was not letting this one go without a fucking good fight.

Patrick stared at her for long moments and she felt the sheer magnetism that dangerous men seemed to have in abundance. He was a handsome fuck, no doubt about that and, coupled with his rep and his financial status, he was the answer to every hostess's dreams. A man with a bit of clout was what she wanted; she had no interest in his loyalty, no interest in anything pertaining to him and his married life. Not yet anyway. All she wanted was a piece of the action, her fifteen minutes of fame.


His blue eyes were cold and for a split second she faltered.

She smiled then, showing her perfect teeth. Ruby had a lovely smile and she had paid a fortune to guarantee that it stayed that way. All her body maintenance was about the long term and making sure she didn't end up like her mother. Old before her time and acting twenty years older than she actually was because her life had ended abruptly with the unfortunate acceptance of a plain gold wedding band.

'Are you a bit fucking thick?'

Ruby stared at him, unsure what to say, the smile still on her thickly painted face.

He walked towards her: he wasn't rushing, he didn't seem angry so she wasn't too bothered until he grabbed her round the throat and pushed her up against the door. 'You listen to me and you listen good. If I ever see you within three foot of me again I'll break your fucking neck. Now, do you understand me or shall I tattoo it on your fucking fat arse?'

Pat's voice was low, and she realised then that she had completely misread the situation.

Ruby Tyler was now terrified of the man she had so recently seen as an easy mark.

He looked into her eyes and then, hawking deeply in his throat, he spat into her face. The globule of phlegm hit her on the cheek, the residue sprayed her eyes and she closed them instinctively, expecting the worst.

'You ever fucking come near me again, girl, and you'll regret it for the rest of your life. A blow job gains you nothing from me except my disgust. Now out! Get your coat and anything else you have here and don't come back, you hear me?'

She nodded, her perfectly backcombed hair unmoving even with the violence of his attack. He loosened his grip on her throat and she instinctively leant back further on to the door, her breath coming in short and painful gasps.

He turned back to his desk and started tidying his papers, and she made her escape as quietly and as quickly as she could.

Patrick was controlling his anger with difficulty; a cunt like her could ruin his whole way of life. As easy-going as Lil was, a ponce like that fronting her up would guarantee her having to do something about it, if just to save face. He had to make sure that never happened again; what the eye don't see, the heart don't grieve over, that had been his mantra all his life and he saw no reason to change it just because some cunt with a cleavage and a friendly mouth had got too big for her boots.

Trouble looked for him, as it did most people, and he had no intention of bringing it to his own front door because some tom didn't understand the ways of the world.

Annie Diamond went to the front door, her steps light and easy on the thick carpet that she marvelled at every day. That Lil, the neuter, the runt, had managed to get herself this far on in life irked her, even though her daughter's circumstances gained her not only respect but a decent roof over her head and the added bonus of serious wedge regularly. Annie's jealousy of her daughter knew no bounds.

As she opened the door, she smiled craftily, and Mick Diamond slipped inside without a sound.

The terror of her life, the man she had shackled herself to because a name for her child had been more important than anything else, was once more a fixture. Only this time, he needed her more than she needed him.

For Annie though, his main appeal these days was the fact that she could sit with him and slaughter her daughter without worrying that it would get back to her or indeed that husband of hers.

Mick and Annie finally had a common goal; they were both determined to make the most of Lil's good fortune, and they were even more determined to wait patiently until the day Patrick Brodie got fed up with her and pushed her aside for a newer model. Although that would signal the end of any money that came their way, they were both agreed that she was getting far too big for her boots.

Mick had been overlooked by Lil and her new husband; he had been ignored and humiliated by Pat more than once. The first time he had approached him and Lil as they sat in the pub chatting. Patrick had acted like he was invisible and he had stood there all nice and friendly while his cronies had looked knowingly at each other. Lil had glanced at him and he had been gratified to see a flicker of fear in her large grey eyes.

The second time, he had waited until Pat was leaving his house and he had hailed him, introducing himself with a flourish and acting the concerned parent. He had then been told in no uncertain terms by Brodie that he knew he was a bullying ponce who had given his Lil a bastard of a life and if he thought her alliance with him was going to bring any kind of rewards then he was obviously a fucking nutcase. He also made it very clear that if he ever approached him again he would make sure that he spent the remainder of his miserable life as a raspberry ripple.

Mick had swallowed though, and when his wife had also gone AWOL he had learned a hard and bitter lesson. The survival of the fittest was an act of nature and he was now so far down the food chain that he was practically human plankton. His reign of terror was over and his daughter's wages were well out of his reach. His wife had left him without a backward glance and ingratiated herself with her daughter and her new beau. She had signed the papers that guaranteed their marriage could go ahead and she had made herself indispensable into the bargain.

She had one thing he didn't; she was blood and blood went a long way in the East End. It took a lot for anyone to turn their backs on it, and Lil was no different to anyone else in that respect. Bolting the door on a parent, no matter what they had done, would have been seen as an outrageous act of arrogance. The only way you could have got away with that was if your mother or father was proved to be either a grass or a child molester. Anything else was expected to be overlooked, and taken into consideration when the parent in question was housed and fed. Inside the front door you could do what you liked, beat the shit out of them, whatever; outside the front door though, it had to look like you were doing your duty.

Now, here he was, dependent on the woman who he felt had tricked him into marriage and then produced a child by someone else, without ever giving him a child he could call his own. But thanks to Annie's naturally antagonistic personality, he had finally got his in, even if it was only by sneaking round when Lil and Pat were both out and then having to listen to his wife's litany of complaints until she slipped him a few quid and hurried him out lest they got caught together.

He also learned a lot about Brodie and his business dealings, and the more he heard, the more his anger swelled up inside him.

Annie opened the bedroom door as always, and he looked down at the two sleeping boys, all the while wanting to wring his wife's neck for rubbing in the fact that he had no real kin of his own. But he admired them as always, and waited for her to lead him through to the kitchen and pour him a large drink.

Annie, for her part, loved the hold she now had over this man. Marriage to Mick Diamond had been a constant battle of nerves and she had been left bitter. Her daughter had been the cause of all the strife and, until Lance had been produced one sunny afternoon, she had never understood what other women seemed to take for granted. The pure unadulterated love for a child, a baby.

She had glanced at her grandson and it had been as if a bolt had been shot through her heart. From his first breath he had been to her like a young god, and the strength of her emotions concerning him had frightened her. She loved him with a passion that she had not believed she was capable of. He ate at her like a cancer, and when his mother had been nursing him she had felt an almost murderous rage that the child had not been born to her. She had convinced herself that if he had, Mick would have treated her properly, would have been proud of the child she had produced. She wasn't taunting him as he thought when she showed him her grandsons, she was trying to make him see what might have been. She had produced a child after all, he had not, and that bastard had ridden her hard for many years in the hope of making her pregnant and the more disappointed he had become, the worse her life had become. He had seen to that, blaming her for her barrenness, and begrudging the few shillings he had to provide for a child who, through no fault of her own, reminded him of his own shortcomings.

Like Mick, Annie was a person with a chip on her shoulder bigger than the San Andreas fault. They both resented Lil because she had fallen into a wonderful life and there was nothing they could do to control it. Annie lived on her son-in-law's largesse and she was sensible enough to know that if it had been left to him, she would have been aimed out of the front door without a second's thought and with his boot in her arse.

This was how these two people had ended up back together again; no one else wanted them, and that knowledge guaranteed that they would have to stick together. But for now, Annie had the upper hand and she relished it because she was shrewd enough to know that circumstances could change overnight. Lil had proved the truth of that old chestnut, as they both knew to their detriment.

Mick Diamond looked around his stepdaughter's lovely home and marvelled at what a pair of tits and a nice smile could accomplish. Women had it easy really, he was convinced of that. His treatment of his own wife was, as always, forgotten when he came here. All he saw was the benefits that Lily's comely figure had accrued and the way she had spurned the man who had given her not only his name but her respectability. God was good though; he knew that without a doubt his time would come with her. Lily Brodie would eventually fall from grace and when she did, he would be waiting.

Brodie might be the big man now, but things changed and always when people least expected it. Death crept up, illness, all manner of things were waiting to jump out and tear a lump out of the arse of people who thought they were immune to the trials and tribulations of real life.

Brodie would eventually get his collar felt or his stomach shot out like Billy Spot; it was the way of their world and patience would reward him, he was sure. And he had patience, he had it in abundance.

Chapter Four

James Curtis had run a bookies in Ilford High Street for over twenty years and, even though betting had only been legal for some of that time, people still referred to him as Jamie the Book. The shop he owned had once sold haberdashery, but it had in fact been a front for the bets, a nice little earner in its own way. On weekends he would be seen paying out in the pubs around East London and Essex with a smile and his self-deprecating wit. He was a funny man and people liked him; he always paid out without a murmur of discontent. You won fair and square with Jamie and people trusted him. He weighed you out with a grin, a joke and a story about how hard-up you had made him. People liked that, it made the win feel extra special.

He was sitting now behind the polished walnut counter, perched precariously as always on his high leather stool, the usual cigarette dangling from his thick lips, working out the odds and taking only the serious bets himself. His balding head was glistening with sweat and his shirt sleeves were rolled up showing his heavily tattooed arms. The door opened and a young man with short blond hair and a sawn-off shotgun nonchalantly strolled in and, taking aim, shot Jamie the Book in the chest.

The regular punters watched in shock as the man they liked and respected was lifted bodily off his stool before landing heavily against his office door, blood pouring from his nose and mouth.

The short-haired man then walked out of the shop without uttering a word. The punters picked up the pieces of paper with their bets written neatly down and hastily beat their retreat. The two girls who worked there were left screaming their heads off in terror, their noise guaranteeing the presence of Old Bill at some point and thereby saving them the job of making the call themselves.

That was how come the police had arrived with no back-up and, as luck would have it, no witnesses. The two girls had by that time decided between themselves to say that they had been in the back making tea when it had all gone down.

No one actually realised for a long time that no money had been taken, so it was not technically a robbery as such. It was murder.

It was this fact that made everyone involved so nervous.

Jamie was liked; he was honest, in his game you had to be. People did not like losing money at the best of times, especially through their own foolishness, let alone because someone had had them over. A bet was a personal thing, it was a wager made in good faith and the punter was more than aware that the wager could go either way; they would win and then pat themselves on the back for their cleverness or they would lose and the bookies patted themselves on the back. The bookies, as everyone knew, did the majority of the back-patting.

Most of the clients were betting for a sporting chance and a bit of excitement, a few of the punters were professional gamblers and they, by their very nature, were suspicious, greedy and notoriously bad losers.

Because of this, the betting industry was a very small world. Because of the professional punters, people like Jamie had to rely on the backing of the Brodies and the Williamses of the world. They needed a back-up more than anyone else. A big loss could make the mildest of men capable of extreme violence. The loss of a week's wages and the knowledge that a family were now unable to eat could turn the quietest of men into a rampaging lunatic. The thought of Pat or the Williams brothers was what guaranteed that this would only be a passing fancy. No one who bet was willing to take on the big boys. Jamie was good anyway, he was always a fair man and understood the devastation that his line of business depended on. He was well liked by punters, even the serious ones respected him. He would only take a big bet if he knew the punter was genuinely up for it.

The bets were the straightest of all dodgy dealings really, by their very nature, trust was important to keep the punters coming back. In fact, a good bookie would offer a regular punter a half a point more than the going price, would make it worth people's while to bet in their shops, as opposed to someone else's. The winners were paid out with a smile and a cheery wave, after all, the money would be winging its way back to him soon anyway.

So, as there were no big races on, no big bets had been placed, and no money removed from the premises, the reason for Jamie's shooting was already being speculated on by all and sundry. The fact Old Bill had wandered in without any kind of haste added to the mystery. Something was happening, but what, no one seemed to know.

Terry Williams was twenty-three and looked like his brothers had at his age. All brawn and no real brain. But he was an amiable lad with a kind heart and his first serious girlfriend.

Although Pat respected the Williams brothers as businessmen and counterparts, he was more than aware that he was the one people wanted to deal with. The Williamses were also aware of that fact but they did not let it bother them at all. They were happy enough with the way things were because it meant that Pat dealt with the minutiae of their daily lives. Which left them to get on with what they did best, strong-arming. Shrewd enough, they had no finesse, they didn't want it; fear of them was more than adequate recompense. They were hard nuts, and they had their place in the world.

Terry was collecting rents in and around Custom House when he was shot in the face. He took the full force of the bullet as well as the glass from his driver's-side window; this left him a bloody wreck and guaranteed a closed coffin for his expensive and lavish funeral. He was still alive when the ambulance arrived, but he drowned in his own blood on his way to hospital, something his mother would have nightmares about and would never come to terms with.

He was calling out for her as he died, by all accounts, but this in no way diminished his credibility or his standing in their community. Everyone wanted their mums when life threw them a curve. They were often the only people who stood by you no matter what you had done or, more to the point, been accused of. Men had been given life sentences and the only person to visit for the duration of their tariff on a regular basis was their mother. All the time you had a mother you had somewhere to go and someone to care.

Terry had died calling out for his mother, that alone would have to be addressed by his brothers, let alone the sheer fucking front of the perpetrator thinking they could get away with such a heinous act. Their mother was in absolute bits and that was something none of them could bear to see. This whole debacle was an outrageous and diabolical liberty, mainly because no one could find any reason for it. There was no one in the frame, no enemies wandering abroad and no grudges that warranted such extreme action. It was a complete and utter head-scratcher. Terry wasn't even trumping someone else's old woman, he was on a fucking love job. There was no reason whatsoever for his murder and the sheer senselessness of it only made his brothers all the more determined to get their revenge.

But the one thing they were agreed on was that when they found out who had been the perpetrator of such a daring and needless killing, the woman who had given birth to them would get that person back bit by bit through the post. For every hurt their mother experienced, they would pay it back tenfold.

Pat was sitting with an old friend in a drinking club he had recently acquired when he heard the news about young Terry.

The murder of the bookie Jamie Curtis had not really affected him; he had put it down to a grudge of some description, personal maybe, or a private bet that had gone wrong. James would not be the first book-maker to take on a few private bets. The trouble with private bets was that the bookie had no redress if it all fell out of bed. As the bets were not accountable to people like himself, meaning they did not go through the books he earned from, meaning he earned fuck all off them, Pat had no reason to make sure they were paid in full. Why would he? A big debt could turn nasty, everyone knew that; gamblers were like junkies, once they were given their fun upfront with no money changing hands, they had a tendency to be a trifle lax when the bills started rolling in. They were more inclined to look elsewhere to spend the money they had left.

Most bookies would sell a debt like that on and take whatever they could get for it, leaving the punter to take his chances with whatever lunatic eventually came after them. And make no mistake, someone would come after them. Pat bought a debt occasionally, for a favour, and collected it quickly and efficiently.

So Pat assumed that Jamie had made a complete fuck up; it was not, after all, a robbery. So it had to be a score being settled, or someone who had decided it was cheaper for them if Jamie was off the scene once and for all.

Either way, Pat wasn't too worried. It had nothing to do with him and anyway, he was confident he would know the reason sooner rather than later. He was sorry, of course. Jamie was all right, and whoever did it was on a fucking death wish because they must know that Jamie paid them protection money, and so this was a double insult. What kind of an advert was this for the firm? Naturally, someone would have to pay for that. But if it was a private bet, they would not step in, so he was happy enough to wait until he had the full SP and take it from there.

Now though, young Terry's demise within hours of Jamie's, put a different complexion on it completely. This felt personal, was personal, Pat would lay money on it, even though the irony of that thought nearly made him smile. He still wasn't too worried though because he was confident in his role as a man to be reckoned with. There had to be a logical explanation, he was sure. He needed to see Dicky and find out what he knew about the situation. Young Terry had to have been up to a bit of private skulduggery.

A chill passed through his body all the same and he ordered a large brandy to counteract it. He was suddenly very uneasy. Paranoia went with the territory, he had known that when he took all this on, it was what kept them on their toes and was part and parcel of their lives. When evil whispered there was always someone willing to take heed. He knew that, trouble was how they earned a living after all. But now he had a feeling that this was not just the usual one-up, this was real trouble, serious trouble.

No one watching Patrick would ever have guessed his thoughts in a million years. He looked relaxed and untroubled. Like a politician caught with his cock in his hand and a friend's son naked beside him, he was fronting it out. No one watching him could see him question or ponder on anything that had occurred; as he was hearing about the afternoon's atrocities, so were they. He was fronting all right, but he was also watching everyone around him carefully in case they might be involved in some way. In case he picked up a nuance, or a vibe.

In Pat's world you were guilty until proven otherwise and, even then, he would keep an open mind.

Dicky Williams was angry. He knew it was a fruitless anger though, because there was nothing he could do about it. Terry was dead and nothing would bring him back, but he was still reeling from the realisation that his little brother had been murdered.

It had not been what he would call a happy or even productive few hours. In fact, it had made him feel so vulnerable and so convinced that there was more serious skulduggery afoot that he was on the verge of harming someone just to vent his colossal anger and therefore get some respite. Pat had explained on the blower that the only relevant thing he had heard was concerning Freezing Freddie, and he had no real proof that it had anything to do with the day's events. Dicky was convinced though that Pat knew more than he was letting on.

It seemed that Fucking Freddie Dwyer, the cold and callous piece of shit, had managed to get himself a serious capture. He had been caught, so the word on the street had it, with a large amount of money and drugs. The house he scavenged from had been overrun at daybreak by a crowd of filth who hailed from New Scotland Yard and went under the name of the Flying Squad. The Flying Squad had actually been around since 1919 and no one had given a flying fuck about them until the early seventies when they were suddenly in everyone's faces. They were as bent as a barrister's cock and about as effective on serious crime as Germolene on an amputated leg.

The Sweeney, as they were known, were not averse to fitting someone up, that was public knowledge, and they were also loath to strike unless they had the person bang to rights in their minds, meaning the fit up was watertight. Sometimes they had a genuine capture, which was less often than they let the public and their bosses believe. Dicky knew for a fact that Freddie had been in possession of enough amphetamines to keep the whole of London up for a week and still have enough left over to do the same again in Glasgow. He should know, he had supplied them to him in the first place.

So how was it that they were hearing that Freddie had got bail? Was it because he had been overzealous with his explanations to Old Bill? Being overly helpful with the filth was becoming more and more acceptable these days, at least that is how it looked at the moment to Dicky Williams. Especially where a dealer like Dwyer was concerned. The courts had started handing out such outrageous sentences that some of the members of their world were unwilling, or more pointedly, unable to cope with that amount of time in prison. He was convinced that Dwyer was one of those people. The dirty, filthy, two-faced fucking rat.

In short, he now strongly suspected Dwyer had offered up some choice information in exchange for a guaranteed sentence and if that was the case, what the fuck had he said? And, even more to the point, how much of his chatter involved him and Pat? If Terry had been taken out and Jamie the Book, then Old Bill were obviously using old scores to take the onus off Freddie's grassing. The Flying Squad often used old scores to take out people they knew they had no chance of nicking.

Freddie was a useless ponce, everyone knew that. But he was also a necessary evil where they were concerned because he made sure that any contacts he managed to secure were guaranteed earners. But, no matter what anyone said about bent filth, you had to procure them long before you finally used them with any degree of confidence, and the fact that they were tucking up their own mates and colleagues spoke volumes. With bent filth it was all about baiting the trap and making sure you grabbed the fucker painfully and with malice aforethought by their gonads, therefore ensuring their full and frank cooperation. Freddie had no filth in his pocket, he relied on Pat and the Williamses to smooth out anything that might cause him aggravation. But the amount of speed he had in his possession would have been the collar of the year to Lily Law and they would have locked him up and thrown away the key before he had even seen his brief. His sojourn in whatever nick they decided to bury him in should have been a foregone conclusion, it was too much gear to even contemplate getting any kind of result, let alone fucking bail. This was fucking freaky, there was no doubt about that.

As Dicky Williams had pointed out to Patrick not an hour ago, if Fucking Freddie Dwyer had grassed him or anyone close to him, he was a fucking dead man. Because Terry's demise was such an affront none of them could believe it was to do with business. Who would be mad enough to take them on?

Patrick's car pulled up outside Dicky's house in Bow and he was already in possession of a large Scotch before he had even walked inside. It was placed in his hand as he stood on the doorstep.

Like Dicky Williams, Pat was also going over the events in his mind once more. And he had to agree with Dicky. Who would be mad enough to take them on? Pat had sighed to himself when he had heard that gem of wisdom, there was nothing like stating the bleeding obvious, but then the Williamses were not renowned for their command of the English language or their intelligence, even as a group, so Pat had overlooked the idiocy of Dicky's words and instead decided to concentrate on finding out what the fuck had gone down. Terry's death had to be avenged and he wanted that vengeance as much as they did, even if it was for a different reason. Dwyer was not a big enough fish for them to bother about; he was a dealer, no more and no less, and he had no real muscle or respect except what he garnered through his relationship with them.

Pat believed that Dwyer was the catalyst for this day's work, but whoever else the filth had brought on board obviously thought they were beyond reproach, and for that reason alone, Pat wanted to obliterate them. He had to think this through and he had to make sure that no one was topped off before they had some idea of what this was all about. Everyone was a suspect now, but he wanted the real suspect not a plastic one. The brothers, however, were on red alert; anyone could be wiped out on the smallest piece of evidence.

Like any soldier, Pat wanted a strategy and you couldn't work one out until you knew exactly what you were dealing with. He would find out if it was the last thing he did on this earth and, the way things were going, that could be exactly his fate before this day was out.

'Look, Dicky, no disrespect, but we need to find out who took out poor Terry, right? Find out the score.'

Dicky nodded solemnly. 'They are fucking amateurs. I mean, think about it, if they had half a fucking brain they would have come after us mob-handed.'

Pat looked into Dicky's open face and saw the pain and the uncertainty there. 'I think Jamie the Bookie was a blind. I think whoever did it wanted us wondering what the fuck was going on. What we need to do now is open this fucking town up and get the answers we need. I have a few Faces I can talk to, you start getting everyone together, then wait till I come back and we'll have a plan of action, all right?'

Dicky nodded once more, relieved that Pat was taking it all over. The reason the Williamses were happier working with Pat was because he was a rational thinker and they were unable to think beyond the last thought that might have invaded their heads, even collectively. They were shrewd enough when it came to earning a crust, no one disputed that, but Pat was the real brains of the outfit and he knew he had to try to sort this out before the Williams brothers started shooting first and asking questions later. Much later.

Lil was happy. Pregnant again, she was happier than she had ever been. Her life was everything she could have hoped for, and more. Patrick was fussing over her as always and, like her, his children were the focal point of his existence. Both had experienced such neglect and utter misery in their own childhoods that they wanted to make sure their children were happy and cared for. They were united in making their children the mainstay of their whole lives. Pat, thanks to his erratic working hours, was able to spend a lot of time with the boys and it showed. Pat Junior was his double; he emulated everything his father did, and at eight years old he was already a force to be reckoned with. His Holy Communion had ensured his place in local folklore because it had been such an event. No one had ever seen the like of it, before or since, and Pat Junior had been like a little angel throughout. The party afterwards had gone on long into the night, and people had talked about it for weeks afterwards. Pat was a happy, popular child who was already showing signs of his father's fighting spirit and his mother's determination to get what he wanted. But his strength was tempered with an innate kindness that she knew his father saw as a flaw, even though deep inside he was pleased that such a generous and big-hearted boy had sprung from his loins. In their world men could not be soft, it was seen as a weakness and Pat wanted his sons to be seen as being strong and as reflections of himself.

Lance, however, was another story. At six he was a big boy for his age and he was still not what she would call normal. He was quiet and surly and he was also very temperamental, causing untold problems when the fancy was upon him. He would argue black was white and her mother, as always, would back him to the hilt.

Lily had regretted having her mother back in her life many times, and always because of Lance. Annie had been a pain in the neck where he was concerned and Lil was constantly on the verge of fighting with her, but her mother had always seemed to sense when she had gone too far, making sure her daughter had nothing to complain about. Annie also knew that her babysitting was appreciated by her daughter who, if nothing else, trusted her with her grandsons.

Pat, however, was a different kettle of fish. He had put her mother in her place when he had seen his son in bed with her, asleep in her arms. Lance had been naked and, for some reason, this had sent Patrick off on a roaring diatribe that had raised the roof and also ensured that her mother was no longer encouraged to stay the night. Now that she was big with her pregnancy, her mother's uses were limited as Lil wasn't working the clubs any more. Her sons were therefore benefiting from her being home of an evening insomuch as their behaviour was being monitored more than usual. Lance hated it, of course, because he couldn't get away with anything and he couldn't stay up with his granny, while his older brother was left to his own devices. Lil was shocked at just how much sway her mother had over Lance. Seeing him perform when he didn't get his own way had been an eye-opener and she regretted letting her mother have such autonomy over him; it wasn't healthy. They had a way of looking at each other that excluded everyone around them, but what really bothered her was that if she, his mother, asked him to do something, he looked first at Annie for confirmation before undertaking the task. It sounded so trivial and unbelievable when said out loud, yet when she saw it happening between them it was almost sinister. She consoled herself that she was home now, and she would keep everyone on an even keel.

Pat Junior, on the other hand, loved having her home all the time. In fact, she felt his relief when the nights drew in because she realised just how much of a hold her mother had over her younger son. She was almost pleased to learn that the school felt pretty much the same way as she did about Lance. They told her that he was not a sociable child and she had smiled and interpreted the words as they were meant to be interpreted. He was a bully and, if his father had been anyone else, he would have been taken properly in hand. Pat Junior, God love him, had been pushed aside to make way for Lance, the golden boy, the child she knew Annie saw as her own. The child her mother seemed to think was more important than anyone else in the world.

Yet no matter what happened, Lil couldn't find it in her heart to push her mother away completely. Somehow she knew that the woman was experiencing love for the first time in her life and as she had such difficulty loving Lance herself, she knew she was guilty of letting her mother give it to him instead. Lance, God love him, gave her the creeps and the guilt she felt because of this was what kept her mother in her life. The new child would be born soon and she would reassess the situation then. At the moment though, she was tired and out of sorts. Lance and his problems would have to wait.

Annie placed a glass of milk beside her, and Lil smiled her thanks, noticing that her mother was being much more civil since Pat had taken her in hand.

The shriek that came from the bedroom brought both women running. It was high-pitched and terrifying; as they burst through the bedroom door they saw Lance cowering on the floor with Patrick leaning over him. It was a scene that neither mother or daughter had ever experienced before. Pat was always the peacemaker, the good boy. Annie immediately shot across the room and slapped Patrick hard across the face. Lil, for the first time in weeks, found the energy returning to her body. As heavy as she was with the pregnancy, she walked purposely over to her mother who was now kneeling on the lino hugging a screeching Lance and, taking back her fist, Lil slammed it with all her might into the side of her mother's head.

Lance screamed even louder and, without thinking, she slapped him too, a stinging blow across his face. 'Get out of my sight before I do for you, boy!'

Lil's voice was deep and resonant, the force of the words penetrated the child's brain and he ran from the room, the shock of the slap quieting him.

Lil pulled Patrick into her arms, hugging him to her. He still wasn't crying, even though the blow from her mother must have been painful.

'You and all, Mother, out.'

Annie looked into the face so like her own and knew that her reign in this house had come to an end. In just a few seconds all the good things she'd had whilst under her daughter's protection flew into her mind. Money, prestige, warmth and companionship. She would rather lick this bitch's boots than be parted from the child she adored.

'Calm yourself down, Lil, think of the baby.' Her voice was low, her face a travesty of hurt and sorrow.

'Get the fuck out of my house.' Lil was talking through her teeth, her anger causing her to pant, and it was this more than anything that warned Annie she was skating on very thin ice.

'I am sorry. Lil, will you please calm down, love?'

Annie was pulling herself up off the floor by leaning on Pat's bed, and Lil saw that she was a woman aged before her time, from her severe, pulled-back hair to the deep grooves around her eyes and mouth. She was mean; her eyes told the truth of her real feelings and, once more, Lil felt the urge to murder her where she stood.

'Go home, Mother, before I do something I regret.'

Annie walked slowly from the room then and Lil didn't expel the breath she was holding until she heard the front door downstairs close behind her.

Patrick stared up at her and said sadly, 'It weren't my fault, Mum.'

She squeezed him to her once more, realising how big he was growing and how sturdy he was.

'What did he do, Pat?'

'He hurt me, he grabbed me and he hurt me.'

He indicated his groin as he spoke and Lil didn't question what he said, as most women would after hearing that said about their child; she knew Pat Junior was telling the truth.

'Go and get yourself a treat and send your brother in.'

She sat herself on the bed and waited until her younger son slipped into the room. 'Why did you grab him there? What have you been told about that?'

He stared into her eyes and, for the first time ever, she saw wariness and fear.

'I didn't…' The whine was in his voice now. The poor-me whine that had Annie running around like a blue-arsed fly.

She pushed her face close to his and had the satisfaction of seeing him flinch. 'Don't you lie to me, boy. Now, get the belt.'

'Please, Mum, please.' He was shaking his head, the shock and terror evident from the whiteness of his face.

She slapped him once more across his cheek, the force snapping his head to the side with a sickening crunch. 'Get the belt, boy, and get it now.'

Lance stumbled from the room, his face already awash with tears.

She watched him go. He was heavier than Pat, similar-looking, but with a tendency to flabbiness. It was because her mother gave him whatever he asked for. Well, he was going to get what he was asking for today, she was determined on that much.

Pat was in Brixton. He pulled up outside a terraced house in Ballater Road and, before turning off the engine, he sat back on the plush leather seats and listened to the radio for a few minutes. He needed a second to calm himself down before he went inside.

The house was small, a three-bedroom semi, nothing to write home about; it blended in with the other dilapidated properties in the road. But Pat knew that inside this house was the information he needed.

As he walked up the small pathway, the door was discreetly opened by a tall black man with dreadlocks and bloodshot eyes. Spider Block was a mate, and they nodded to each other cautiously. 'He expecting you, man.'

Pat grinned then. 'He fucking better be, Spider.'

As Pat slipped inside the small hallway, he nodded a greeting to another large black man and walked straight into the parlour. The place was as dilapidated inside as it was on the outside. There were a few bits of furniture, no floor covering, not even linoleum; just brown tiles caked with years of grime and paint drips. The smell consisted mainly of Dwyer's body odour and mouse droppings; the decay and stench of neglect was a familiar odour to Patrick Brodie. It was what he had grown up with, and it was for that reason he loathed it so much. It reminded him of what he had come from, reminded him of the hunger and the despair that had spurred him on to make something of himself. He breathed it in deeply to make sure he never forgot it because if he ever did, he would be finished in his world and he knew that. These people smelt weakness like other people smelt their own shit; it wasn't nice, but it was a necessary part of life.

Dwyer had come from the same background so Pat had no respect for him still choosing to live like an animal. Pat knew his own children would never know this stench, and never know the shame of having to live like it.

At a scuffed wooden table sat three men. Patrick knew only one of them and, standing stiffly in the doorway of the room, he said harshly, 'I take it you were expecting me then?'

Freddie nodded and sighed in a very nervous and exaggerated manner.

Pat decided he really did look like a rat; he had the long nose of his Jewish mother and the shifty mud-brown eyes of his Welsh father. Freddie was an ugly bastard, and, until now, that had not mattered one iota, but suddenly his ugliness spelt out treachery, hate, and underlying all that emotion was fear. Not just Freddie's, that was hanging in the room like a net curtain; for Pat it was the fear of what Freddie knew, what Freddie could use against him if cornered.

Patrick's head was reeling with all the information he had gathered in the last four hours. Some he knew to be true, some he guessed was gossip, gossip that had gained momentum as the day's events had been discussed and dissected by the common herd. There was always an element of truth in gossip though, and he had tried to ferret it out as best he could. He also knew for a fact that at least one of the men at the table was a filth, and he decided to wait and hear what Freddie had to say before committing himself.

No one was more surprised than Lil when the police had knocked at her door. They were warrantless, aggressive, and they turned the whole place over in a matter of minutes.

She sat on her black and orange PVC sofa with the boys either side of her and watched as her beautiful home was systematically ripped apart before her eyes. As drawers were pulled out and emptied on to the beige carpet, she lit a cigarette with shaking hands and acted as if this was a normal day. She chatted to her two wide-eyed children and listened to the police conversations all at the same time.

'Are there any guns in the house?'

DCI Kent was a tall, thin man with halitosis and stooped shoulders. He had his usual comb-over hairdo and a cigarette constantly on the go. His grubby mac had a fine layer of dandruff all over the shoulders and Lil hated him.

'What are you on about? Why would we have guns?' She sounded scandalised and angry; she knew how to play the game. 'Look at my house, you rotten bastards, what the fuck you got to wreck it for?'

'This is nothing, Lil, this is just the start.'

She didn't answer him, she just pulled the children closer to her as if protecting them from an invisible force.

Kent lit a new cigarette from the butt of the old one, breathing clouds of smoke over the boys. Lil looked wary and worried, and he noticed the brightness of the kids' eyes as they watched the commotion around them. Already they were street-smart and the knowledge depressed him for some reason. He knew he was looking at the next generation of lunatics and psychopaths. This scene would become a normal occurrence to them; one day it would all be re-enacted with their own kids and so the cycle would go on. He had seen it so many times over the years and, the older he got, the more he noticed how futile it all was. Young Pat Junior had his father's craggy good looks, he was also well set-up; even for a small boy he had the look of a fighter. He would be a lump in a few years and it went without saying that he would be a fighter.

The bigger of the boys though, Lance, would run to fat, he was already too chubby to be comfortable. He also had the furtive look that would mark him out all his life; it was the same look the little bastards who were already hanging around the estates causing trouble had.

Yet he had to admit that, in fairness to Patrick, he had provided for his family handsomely. But, as his father used to say, blood will out.

He smiled at Lil and said gently, 'You better sort your old man out, Lil, he is making a lot of enemies lately.'

'Get out and leave me and my children alone.'

Kent looked at her then and she saw the sadness in his eyes as he shook his head slowly.

'You're a mug, Lil, that old man of yours is living on borrowed time. If I don't get him, then his so-called mates will; at least with me he is in with a chance of seeing his babies grow up.'

He nodded towards her belly and she felt the truth of what he was saying; this was not the usual Old Bill mug-bunnying. Her old man paid out too much money to get turned over without fair warning. This was serious all right.

But she kept her own counsel.

Chapter Five

Lil was bone-weary, but she tidied the place up anyway. Her home was everything to her; it made her feel safe, it was the place she felt she could finally relax in. It was important to her that it was a calm, clean and quiet oasis, especially now that she was pregnant. Even more so when her old man was on the missing list.

She tried to phone through to all his known haunts, and once again she was met with either a continuous ringtone or an engaged signal, which told her the phone in question was off the hook. She knew better than to phone certain pubs and watering-holes because it would then have alerted people to what could be a serious situation. Until she knew the score, she knew she had to be circumspect.

His silence though, and the fact that no one seemed to know his whereabouts, was making her feel ill with worry, and she forced herself to calm down once more. Her belly was heavy, dragging at her whole being. Her fear and tiredness was making her movements sluggish, her back was aching and her eyes were red-rimmed with tiredness. She had sorted out the boys' room first, making it like a game, encouraging them to help and then settling them into their beds, all the time feeling the bewilderment and fright coming off them in waves. As young as they were though, they knew to keep their traps shut in front of Old Bill. In a strange way she was proud of that. Pat Junior knew where his father's gun was, he could have tracked it down like a bloodhound if the fancy took him. They often joked between themselves about how many times it had been hidden away and how many times young Pat had found it. The filth had got nowhere near it tonight, and this was a small victory for her. It gave her a little gee-up, made her feel they were still in control. The frightening thing was, until Old Bill turned your place over in front of your kids, and more importantly with what seemed like a good reason, you never really quite understood just how precarious your life actually was. Being left without a bread-winner and a father for your children, a protector, never crossed your mind. When the filth showed up, the precariousness of your situation hit you in the face with the force of a speeding car.

Now, with a belly full of arms and legs, two boys dependent on her, and an old man she loved so much it hurt her, Lil felt the cold hand of fear patting her on her back. It was warning her, making her start questioning all the things she had taken for granted. Like all villains' wives, she had received her first real wake-up call. Tonight wasn't the usual half-hearted assault by the filth to make it all look good on paper, this was serious. Her husband, the father of her kids, was likely on the wrong end of a capture; if it all went pear-shaped he could go away for so long he would be a grandfather before he came home. Judges were handing out outrageous sentences these days, the short sharp shock was a thing of the past; this new government was all for burying the fuckers and forgetting them.

Once more Lil was reminded of the fact that she had no real dosh, no hard cash, nothing to call her own. Pat controlled it all, as he should. But the seed was sown now, and that would have to be addressed sooner rather than later. When, and if, he came home, she was going to make sure she was never left in this position again.

She kissed her boys and watched as they settled themselves down in their now tidy bedroom. They were calmer now, drinking their drinks and chatting between themselves as usual. The first shock was over with, normality was gradually being reinstated. Something inside was telling her that they should have been more bothered by the night's events, but she pushed these thoughts away. Kids were resilient.

If Pat had a capture, he had a capture. There was nothing she could do about it, but the thought terrified her. Her heart was racing at that thought and she breathed in deeply, knowing that she could easily dissolve into hysterics at any moment.

She forced herself to concentrate on the job in hand. The sitting room was destroyed. They had even taken the seat cushions off the sofa and split them open with a knife; the stuffing was everywhere and the tears stung her eyes as she cleared it all away.

She still had not heard a word from Pat and she was getting more and more agitated by the minute. She checked her purse and realised that she had less than eight pounds to her name. If Pat was nicked, or worse, she had no access to his money at all. Her mother's voice came back to her and, as much as she hated to admit it, the old bitch was right. Pat should have set her straight in case he was nicked. She needed access to money, not just for his brief, but for the daily business of living with a young family and the expense that children brought with them. These were desperate times, and desperate times meant desperate measures.

A little voice, though, was telling her that she was entitled to his money anyway, she had eight fucking quid and a family to feed. Why didn't she have a stash? Why was she dependent on him for everything when she had a fucking growing family? More to the point, why hadn't Pat thought to make provision for them? Plan fucking B was what he always referred to when discussing work, it was for when Plan A fell out of bed. And here she was with nothing, not a Plan A, let alone a Plan B. Not a brass razoo to her bastard name. She was shaking with fear for him and fear for herself and her family. Anger kept her going. She was still cleaning up when her mother arrived, all brown teeth, lavender cologne and pretending a concern she was not capable of feeling.

She let Annie give the boys their breakfast because she had no heart to do anything except sit and feel her baby kicking as if it was reminding her that it was there. Another mouth to feed on eight poxy quid. Throughout the day young Pat stuck to her like shit to a blanket but Lance acted as if nothing was amiss.

Annie had the nous to keep her beak out and silence the questions that were hurling themselves around her head. The neighbours were vocal about the raid; speculation was rife as always and the dolt she called a daughter had not uttered one word about any of it. She could see that her daughter was not in the mood for a full and frank discussion of any description. Her daughter's plight affected her not one iota; she was there for no other reason than accruing some Brownie points. With them she could gain access to her Lance. Without that child her life was meaningless; her feelings for him were so strong she felt them as a physical force. She would endure anything to be near him, and do anything to keep others away from him.

Love was a strange emotion. It was something she had never felt before, or felt the need to express in any way. She saw herself in him, and that was enough to make her feel that finally her life was worth living.

Dwyer was trembling so much that he couldn't light his cigarette. Pat leaned over and struck a match, holding it out for him, watching him trying to inhale and make the cigarette work at last. His three attempts left them all embarrassed and the room was heavy with tension. Dwyer's breathing was loud, even to his own ears, and his actions were unnatural and overly dramatic. He looked what he was.

Patrick grinned at him in a friendly manner. 'You all right, mate? You on the gear as usual?'

Dwyer smiled then. His wrinkled face was suddenly familiar, his hangdog look back, he could have been a favourite uncle. Pat felt a smidgeon of sorrow for him. He was a product of circumstances, as they all were. The bloke Pat thought was filth was watching them nervously, but in fairness he was calm enough to get away with it. Patrick, however, was relaxed. Sitting back in the chair, he waited until Dwyer was puffing away on his Embassy before he spoke. 'Who are this lot? I think an introduction is on the cards, don't you?'

The suspect filth looked him in the face then and Pat smiled gently once more.

'We're friends of Freddie's…'

Pat pointed a finger at the suspect filth without looking at him directly, he was now leaning once more across the table staring into Freddie's eyes, but talking to the other man. 'Who gave you permission to address me, you cheeky cunt?'

Freddie was terrified again, this was not what was supposed to happen. Pat wasn't supposed to be like this, cocky and spoiling for a straightener. It was Pat who was supposed to be caught on the hop. Freddie was not geared up for this behaviour at all.

'You shut the fuck up until I speak to you directly, OK? You are a no-neck, a fucking ice-cream, a nothing.' The violence behind Pat's eyes was barely hidden, everyone was reminded of just how slippery he could be, especially when he thought he was being mugged-off.

Pat had a reputation and the people in the room had conveniently forgotten it because as a collective they had assumed they would be the stronger. Pat had just reminded them of how big a mistake an assumption could turn out to be.

The filth was unsure how to react to Brodie. He knew though that he had been tumbled. Pat snapped his head round to look at the man, his eyes were dead now, he was in work mode and anyone who really knew him would be seriously worried. Pat was capable of anything when he felt even remotely threatened, extreme violence was how he had attained his position in the first place. Tonight he was not going down without taking this lot with him, and they were now all aware of that. He planned ahead and he thought on his feet; he was ready for whatever these pieces of shit were intending to lay on him. So when he smiled once more it was with a chilling certainty that he would be the victor no matter what happened.

'Two fucking deaths and you are here with strangers, Fred, fucking strangers. Suspect strangers at that.' He looked at Dwyer again, his voice high with utter contempt, not only for them but for the situation they had all found themselves in.

'Have I got cunt tattooed on my fucking forehead or what?' Pat held his arms up in a gesture of supplication. It was overly dramatic, and it was also a warning that he was playing with them, enjoying the moment.

Dwyer puffed furiously on his cigarette, not even attempting to justify himself and, more to the point, not trying to even introduce his new-found friends. He knew it was over, he knew they were finished. His terror was now communicating itself to the other men in the room.

Patrick started to laugh. He could feel the power flowing into him, knew he had them on the hop. He was an unknown quantity, all they knew of him was his reputation, none of them had experienced him first-hand. Pat was more than a handful when the fancy took him, and the fancy was on him tonight, he could feel the menace inside him desperate to be unleashed. He was actually enjoying himself. He was willing to go away to avenge this fucking atrocity, and go away for a long time. This was an out-and-out fucking liberty of Olympian standards and, because of that, he was not going to swallow his knob. He wanted blood and retribution and he was determined to get it, no matter what the personal cost might be.

'I came here to try and make some kind of fucking sense out of the deliberate and wilful dereliction of your fucking duties. You had a tug and you fucking sold us down the river, you treacherous cunt. You are the cause of two good men being outed, and the most heinous crime of all is that none of you thought that I might have cottoned on, that you thought I was too thick to suss this lot out? Is this the best you could fucking do, the best you could come up with?'

He laughed once more, and pointed at Dwyer. 'Him? You relied on him? Fucking Freezing Freddie? And you are the so-called Sweeney Todd, the scourge of the criminal classes? Oh fuck off!'

There was no anger in his voice now, just righteous indignation, sarcasm and a smattering of honest disbelief. 'You're a fucking joke.'

The suspect filth was a big lad, he had broad shoulders, but the soft, pudgy body of a lazy man. Like most plain-clothes filth he had never really worked at anything since promotion; he relied on other people to make his cases for him. He was dependent on grasses like Dwyer and statements from the general public. In short, he chased rumours, gossip and idle chit-chat. His mentality was such that he actually thought that a man like Pat Brodie could be brought to book. Would roll over because they might have garnered some information that could put him away. He did not have the experience or intelligence to see that a man like Brodie would go down for a twenty-stretch without letting them hear one of his farts, let alone anything that would incriminate anyone else.

Took, Pat, you got this all wrong… We want you with us…'

The suspect filth had finally spoken, was trying to get him onside, actually thought he would roll over and grass on his mates. The man had a deep voice, a pleasing voice in fact; it had an underlying lilt to it, Welsh maybe. He was playing at the London accent though, so many CID and Flying Squad were guilty of that. They thought it made them seem harder and more on the ball. These upper working-class boys from the Home Counties now saw themselves as the new and improved Z Cars. Patrick looked around the table and sighed in disappointment. This was the legendary Sweeney? He had seen harder nuts in his Christmas stocking. There was even a television programme about them and, after tonight, he could only assume it was a fucking comedy.

Too late, the suspect filth realised he had said the wrong thing. He was still secure enough in his job to believe that even if Brodie didn't play the game he would not have the nerve to do any real damage to them; after all they were Lily Law, when all was said and done. He was wondering, though, if Brodie might be tempted to wallop one of them, just to prove a point.

'Who're you calling, Pat? How dare you attempt any kind of familiarity with me?'

The room was now steeped in animosity and righteous indignation; Patrick's natural-born hatred of any kind of authority was in evidence and he was offended, really offended. Then, from underneath his coat, he produced a machete. He brandished it with relish, watching the men around him as the realisation of their situation dawned on them. Spider and his Jamaican cousin were standing in the doorway, their own weapons, a scythe and a Japanese samurai sword, clearly visible.

The three men at the table finally understood that they were in grave danger and the fact that they were part of the establishment guaranteed them nothing from the bunch of psychopaths looking at them with excitement in their eyes and malice in their hearts.

Standing up, Patrick brought the machete down with all the force he could muster, on to Freddie Dwyer's head. Spider and Pat laughed out loud as they systematically hacked him to pieces, the blood splattering on to the scandalised faces of the Old Bill as they awaited their turn, making it all the more hilarious.

A lesson was administered swiftly and with the maximum of brutality. It was a lesson well learned by everyone who had to deal with Patrick Brodie from that day on.

He had gone from hard nut to headcase overnight, and it was a well-planned, well-executed and deliberate ploy to ensure that anyone who had dreams of grassing him up would remember that Dwyer, and the Old Bill he had been fool enough to associate with, had been sentenced to death without any repercussions whatsoever.

Lil was lying on the sofa trying to get comfortable. Her belly was tight once more, and the devastation of her home was still in evidence. She had put everything back as neatly as she could, but the police had done a thorough job inasmuch as most of the soft furnishings would have to be replaced.

She took a few deep breaths and tried to calm the beating of her heart, which was pounding inside her breast with such force it was almost painful. She still had not heard anything from Pat and the time was crawling by. Every time she looked at the clock on her mantelpiece it seemed that an hour had passed, but in fact it had been only minutes. Her mother was still in with the boys and she blocked out the thoughts that were crowding her mind. Her belly was tightening once more and she knew on some level that she was in labour.

However, the pain was nothing she couldn't handle and her mind was still racing and reliving the last few hours. She lit a cigarette and pulled on it deeply, the nicotine hitting her brain and making her feel dizzy. The second draw was better and the third eased her nerves. She looked down at herself and saw the movement of her belly that she knew heralded the arrival of a new person into the world. It was early and she was too tired to make a fuss.

If Patrick had experienced a capture it might be eight or even ten years before he came home to her and his kids; it was a sobering and frightening thought. She felt so alone and so vulnerable, and all she kept focusing on was the fact she had only eight quid to her name.

Eight poxy quid and a new child fighting for its place in the world. What the fuck was she going to do?

Spider and Pat were in a house just off the Railton Road. They were soaked with blood and still on the high that often followed a bout of extreme violence.

Dicky and the Williams brothers were over the moon at the retribution Pat had doled out in their names. Dicky had been disappointed that he had missed out on the shenanigans but he was also secretly pleased that no one could put him or his brothers anywhere near the crime scene. Dead filth tended to cause serious aggravation, even bent dead filth. His brother's untimely demise had hit them all hard and he knew that Pat's logic for keeping this away from them was the act of a good mate. Their boat races would be the first in the frame and they had genuinely been somewhere else, so they had the perfect alibi.

They were now pouring drinks and assuring each other that if the filth had any intention of feeling their collars it would have happened already. Pat knew, as Spider knew, that the filth were taking time to lick their wounds, especially the ones they had something on. They would regroup at some point, that was human nature, but at this particular moment in time the Old Bill felt it was better to retreat, smile and nod, wait till the time was right then, when they were at their weakest, they would come for them mob-handed. Until then, fuck them! The murder of young Terry Williams had not been a smart move and the up-and-coming young Face they had bought with promises of aggrandisement was now the most wanted Face in the Smoke, for all the wrong reasons, running scared and, suddenly, without any protection whatsoever. Jamie the Book's death had barely registered on the Richter scale of criminal London, so even that had not given the Flying Squad anything that they could use against the Williamses or Brodie. It was a catastrophic fuck up but lessons had been learned.

In reality, anything that had been gained from the whole sorry business was in Brodie's favour; he was the new king of the swingers and the bent police he had gathered made him a no-go because he had been astute enough to buy only the best. As his mum had always told him, you get what you pay for and how true those words had turned out to be.

Spider had been a good mate to Pat over the years but he had made a life-changing choice this night: he had chosen Pat over the guaranteed protection of filth. If he had gone along with Dwyer, he would have been given a free rein to serve up his puff with no hassle whatsoever. But, like Patrick Brodie, he would rather take his chances in their world than live under the protective umbrella and sickening stench of Old Bill.

Patrick was filled with enthusiasm now: as he had showered the blood from his body he had relived the feelings of excitement that the night had created inside him. That he had enjoyed the violence so much made him question everything about himself; he had watched Dwyer die slowly and painfully and he had been fascinated by it. As the others had waited for their turn, he had observed their absolute terror, could smell the fear emanating from their pores. As he had remarked to Spider, it was absolute power; the knowledge that you chose whether someone lived or died was the greatest buzz of all. It was their horror and the realisation that they were in over their heads that had made him feel so good, that had made him prolong the agony of Dwyer so he could enjoy their fear, feed off it and make it work for him, for his benefit.

Now he was calming down he waited for the feelings to disappear, but they didn't, and he knew that he had awakened something inside himself that had been waiting to escape for years. He was his father's son, his mother's child and he knew now that he had a hard streak running through him that made him immune to other people's suffering; at least the people who thwarted him.

He was determined to use that to his advantage. After this little debacle he was going to make sure he was never again in a position of weakness; if extreme fear kept him safe then that was fine by him.

He had put the word out for information on the whereabouts of the shooter. Once he had a reliable lead and wiped him out, the whole episode would be closed once and for all. He was sending out more messages than the GPO, and anyone with half a brain would take heed. Patrick Brodie was not a man to cross, even filth had learned that lesson the hard way.

Lil opened her eyes and quickly closed them again. It was early in the evening and the sun was bright in the hospital room. She was still unable to relax, still worried about Patrick. Not a word, and no one seemed able to track him down. All through the delivery she had been on red alert for a message to say he was outside, a word from someone, anyone, to tell her that he was OK and still on the out. But no one seemed to have heard from him and no one seemed bothered about his disappearance.

A thin mewling brought her bolt upright and she smiled into the cot placed beside her bed; two perfectly formed little girls lay side by side, identical in every way. Despite being early, they were healthy, robust children with well-rounded limbs and thick curly hair.

Twins. The sheer enormity of their birth was overwhelming her. No one had detected a second baby, no one had been prepared for the second birth and no one could love them more than she did. It was a revelation that, even in her terror of what the next few hours might bring, a fierce determination to protect them was foremost in her mind.

Pat would be over the moon, she knew, when he eventually found out about them. It had been the most eventful night of her life and having to keep up the pretence that everything was OK, lying that her husband was working away and couldn't be contacted, was taking its toll on her.

She had to spend ten days in this poxy bed but until she knew what was going on with her old man, she knew that the sleep her body was crying out for would not come. If and when he finally turned up she was going to launch him into outer space. That thought made her feel better for a while.

Laina Dawson was seventy-two years old and had moved out to Southend fifteen years earlier with the GLC and the slum clearance. Her two daughters and her youngest son were still in the Smoke and she saw them often, but to have her grandson, her Leonard, named for his dead grandfather, living with her was as close to heaven as she thought she was ever going to get.

His nerves seemed to be getting the better of him though and she believed, as did his mother, that the sea air would soon have him back on his feet. Good home cooking and a few weeks' watching telly with his old nana would soon put the colour back into his cheeks.

'Fancy coming to bingo, love?'

Lenny forced a smile and shook his head, his resemblance to his errant father all the more striking since he had shaved his hair off.

It was the only thing about this boy she found difficult to like, his looks, he was his father's son in that department. He was that two-faced ponce all over again but, as luck would have it, that was where the similarity between them ended. Unlike his old man, he was a kind, decent lad with good manners and an amiable way about him.

The rumours going round that he was involved with criminals she shrugged off as nonsense. He wasn't a violent thug and anyone who said otherwise was a liar; as she was always telling him, people were jealous. What they had to be jealous of she had never explained, but that had been her answer to all her children's complaints since they were babies. It never occurred to her that they might have been at fault, it was always everyone's jealousy of her perfect brood.

Now she had her grandson here, only because he was in some kind of trouble, and she was once more making up excuses for him. He was young and foolish, he would learn. The pungent tobacco he smoked made him almost catatonic and if it had been anyone else's grandson, she would have sworn it was that new cannabis stuff she had read about in the papers. Not her boy though, he was above all that.

As she got ready to go to bingo she chatted to him, ignoring the fact that he hardly registered her existence. She was lonely since her old man had passed and even though she would die before admitting it, she was making the most of having someone to prattle on to. The boy did look rough though. He was white-faced, and he was sporting bags under his eyes large enough to fetch her shopping in. He was caught up in some kind of fuckery, she would swear to that, but what it was, she would not ask.

Overwork, that was his mother's explanation for his condition and Laina had not questioned the fact that, to her knowledge, Lenny had never actually had a job. They must think she was in her dotage. For all her talk about how good they were to her, Laina knew that she only saw her kids or their offspring when there was aggravation afoot or money was needed.

Lenny was a bright boy though, he made a few quid and had slipped her a ton for his little sojourn with her, so that wasn't too bad was it? As her old man had always said, it would all come out in the wash.

As she bowled down Progress Road on her way to the bingo she heard the screech of tyres that was becoming more and more prevalent in the area. Southend was going to the dogs, and she didn't mean the kind that raced at Walthamstow either.

As she crossed the road, Laina didn't see the three men slip up her pathway and enter her home without even having the decency to knock.

And she didn't see her grandson's face as he heard a familiar voice say quietly, 'Hello, Lenny.'

Even though he had known that this moment was inevitable, the shock still rendered Lenny speechless.

'Nothing like a bit of sea air, a nice little holiday.'

Lenny looked into the eyes of Pat Brodie and knew without a doubt that all that was left for him now was to die with some dignity about him, with a bit of self-respect.

When they told the story of his demise, as he knew they would, in their cups, boys together, he wanted them to say that he took it like a man. That he had held his hand up, wiped his mouth and accepted the inevitable. He wanted them to give him credit for his bravery, talk about him with respect. He knew that a good death would earn him some kudos for the future, even though he would not be there to hear about it. He wanted his friends to know that he had not begged for his life or tried to talk his way out of it; he wanted to go with his pride intact, no matter how ruthlessly Brodie decided to eliminate him. This was what was left for him now: Brodie saying that he died like a man, and Brodie would say it, would give him his due, and in their world that meant a lot. The fact that he was thinking about how he would be perceived after his death at twenty-five years old did not enter his mind; the fact that it was that kind of warped thinking that had brought about his early demise, did not enter it either. He had gambled, and he had lost. If he had won, he would not have any sympathy as the victor, consequently he expected no less for himself. He smiled halfheartedly, still the hard nut, the Face. He swallowed down his fear, a small part of him relieved that he would not have to wait for the knock on the door any more; the door had finally been opened and a peace was descending over him.

'Not here, mate, me nan…'

The boy looked like a child, his chubby face was open and he was more than aware of his fate.

Pat grinned and said jovially, 'What do you think we are, Lenny, fucking animals?'

'Fuck me, Lil, a pair of brahmas there, girl.' Her stepfather's voice dragged her from the sleep that complete exhaustion and two Mogadon from a worried nurse had finally given to her.

Lil looked at him with dark-rimmed, tired eyes and Mick knew that she wished him as far away as was physically possible. He felt the urge to smack her across her smug face, but he didn't, he was still playing the game. Still acting as if she was his daughter and he was a doting grandfather.

The twins though, they were beauties; even he was touched by their good looks and the perfect symmetry of their features. They were two peas in a pod all right, and he envied Brodie his family more at this moment than ever before.

The word had hit the street that Brodie had out-gunned the pretenders to his throne, hence this very public appearance at the hospital to welcome his new granddaughters. But as the man of the moment was nowhere to be seen, maybe the pavement talk was a bit premature.

'You need anything, love?'

She barely moved her head in denial and the disrespect was not lost on him and he grinned.

'I bet Pat is over the moon, eh, love?'

This was said with the confidence of someone who knew that her husband had not been anywhere near and Lil could feel the animosity coming off her stepfather in waves. There was an underlying sarcasm in his voice that told her he had heard something about her old man's whereabouts. He was aware of the Old Bill turning the house over; her mother would have seen to that, so she kept her expression blank, unwilling to give him the satisfaction of knowing he had rattled her.

The silence between them was finally broken by Mick's harsh cough. He broke eye contact and dropped his head on to his chest in a shamefaced manner and Lil knew she had unnerved him; for all his hatred and his bravado he was a coward, and like all cowards, he was also treacherous. She knew he would sell every one of them down the river without a second's thought if it gained him anything.

'Fuck off and leave me be.' Her voice was deep from a lack of sleep and emotion, and she was pleased to note that he left without a word. She was shaking again. It was over forty-eight hours and she had still not heard from Pat. That in itself was not unusual, he often disappeared, but he had to have known that they had been turned over. That she had been left to sort it while her belly was nearly dragging on the floor. He had to have thought of her condition and his boys, surely? The fact he had not contacted her made her feel abandoned, frightened and lonely.

No one seemed to be answering their phones either, and that alone told her that something was wrong, very wrong. Even the club phones were off the hook, so she had nothing and no one to allay her fears. Once more she felt the enormous weight of her worries lying heavy on her shoulders as she wondered where the fuck her old man was and why he had not been in touch. The ache in her breasts was nothing to the tight band of tension that was slowly squeezing her head until she felt as if it was going to explode. In a strange way, she hoped he was banged up, because if he was still at large it meant that he had not been bothered about them all; that they had not even entered his head.

Dicky Williams was getting out of his car with his usual jaunty air when he was shot repeatedly in the head and body. Lenny was obviously not the culprit, and no one seemed any the wiser about who it might have been. It was a head-scratcher all right.

It was too late for his death, that was the sad part, because the whole debacle was over and poor Dicky had been taken out after everything had been sorted, but no one seemed to have any knowledge about it whatsoever.

It was a tragedy, more so because the other Williamses were not capable of keeping themselves together without his strength of character. It would soon become apparent that Dicky's death, not Terry's, would be the catalyst that would bring the whole lot of them down.

Chapter Six

Kathleen and Eileen were toddling around the room and Pat was laughing at their antics. They were his heart and everyone, including the boys, accepted that fact. The girls, as they were always referred to, were gorgeous; blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauties who had never in their life been subject to anything except love and spoiling. At three, they were a mirror image of each other. They were also bright; early talkers, early walkers and they were already ruined by their parents and brothers.

Patrick watched his wife as she wiped noses, tidied up the house and cooked the dinner. Lil was a strong girl and she was still the only woman for him. As his daughters held out their arms to her and she reached down to hug them, he smiled at the picture they created and felt a lump in his throat.

She was a beautiful woman and four children had not diminished her allure in his eyes. If anything it had made her more attractive to him. But with the birth of the twins she had been forced to give up working with him, and even though she loved being a mother to them all, he knew she missed the excitement of being a part of his working life. She glanced at him and smiled sadly; she could see through him as if he was a pane of glass and they both knew it.

Guilt ate away at him. He had been on the missing list for two days when the girls were born, and the fact that his wife, his Lil, had not even mentioned it, spoke volumes. She had stopped asking him questions a long time ago, didn't want to know where he had been, she no longer cared. All she seemed interested in was money, she was obsessed with money. She demanded it as her right and how could he deny her? Four kids cost money, a lot of money, but sometimes he felt that was all he was to her, a meal ticket, a pay packet, even though he knew that was unfair.

He was turning into his father and he hated himself for that. But the clubs called to him, he got a few drinks inside him, started mug-bunnying and, before he knew it, the night was over and the morning was there. The girl he had spent the day and night with wasn't fit to clean Lil's shoes, yet he had not cared about that. She had been young, available and fresh-looking. She had also been as thick as shit and up for anything. He had fucked her rigid in the back of his car and he couldn't even remember her name. She had been in possession of a pair of firm tits and a nice smile and that had been criteria enough for what he had wanted at that particular moment in time. He had used her, as he always used the girls who hung around him, and who made him more grateful than ever that he had his Lil waiting for him at home. As soon as it was over and the drink wore off, he wanted shot of them and he was disgusted with himself, swearing it would be the last time.

However, it was becoming a frequent occurrence, even though it meant nothing. He stayed out even when there was no actual work involved, nothing to do, no reason not to go home to his family, and he felt a right ponce. He was taking the piss out of Lily and he knew it. More to the point, she knew it. If Lil had been out all night on the gatter he would have caused a fucking riot. If anyone even looked at her sideways, he felt a jealousy that was capable of causing him to murder. As she always pointed out, you judged people by your own standards. Because he was capable of taking a flier, he assumed she was, even though he knew she was better than that. The worst thing was that she had a natural, built-in shit-detector that told her when he was pulling a fast one.

Patrick was the king of the hill now, he had made himself a rep that was so solid, so concrete, that no one in their right mind would challenge him. In a strange way, this disappointed him. Patrick knew that to keep on top you had to put on a show of strength on a regular basis, not only to warn off any pretenders, but to keep your workforce in line. He had a lot of people working for him now, and a few of them were capable of being contenders if he was fool enough to give them too much leeway.

Even Dave and the other Williams brothers were pushing their luck lately, and it was getting to the stage where a straightener might very well be on the cards.

Spider and his cronies were still on his payroll, but as the Williamses and the blacks had never really mixed, it was causing aggravation. The Williamses resented the money that was going their way, not understanding that Spider was a good mate and that he earned fortunes off the blues, the grass and the firearms that he had a knack of sniffing out. Times were changing and the Jamaicans were the future for them. If Dave could only get his thick head around that fact, they would all have been the better for it. They had been offered a chance and they had knocked it back long ago. Now the money was rolling in and resentments were surfacing because of that.

Spider worked the front line and ran the whole shebang, from blues to birds. Blues were parties that went on for days; a derelict property was located, boarded up, cleared of debris, then a sound system would be installed and a bar erected. The party could go on for days and the money collected off the door and the bar was astronomical. The puff sales were always good and the police kept well away. All in all, it was a good earner and Spider had it sewn up. No one could have a blues, sell a bit of puff or pimp a woman without Spider's express say-so. That meant of course, without his say-so. Spider didn't care about that, he and Patrick had gone into it as a team, but it seemed that suddenly Dave and his brothers did mind. They had no foothold in south London and resented the money that Patrick was creaming off, but they had originally been offered an in and refused it. They had not seen Brixton and its potential, they had not weighed out for any of the original deals and they were going to have to swallow the fact they had made a big fuck up. There was no way at this late stage that anyone was going to cut the profits three ways just to keep the peace.

Spider was shifting Dexedrine at fifty quid a thousand and the kids wanted them. Amphetamine was the new drug of choice, whether in pill form or powder, and it was making shit-loads of money for them. Spider ran the business with military precision and he was adamant that south London was his and Pat had to stand by him on that.

Pat looked around the house he had recently purchased and a sense of pride washed over him once more; no one in his family had ever bought their home before. It was a strange feeling, owning something so significant. It was a commitment, it was the roof over his family's head. It was an asset as well, he was aware of that. He had bought it cash, that had been another of Lil's demands. Until now he had not thought of putting money into anything tangible, had steered clear of anything that could be investigated by the tax or the police. But Lily had pointed out that the turnover from his legit businesses was more than ample for a purchase of this size and as usual she had been right.

The house was in her name and she held the deeds to it. It was the least he could do. He owned other houses, but they were business properties and they were in his name; he could walk away from them at any time. This place felt solid though, it was his home; his family's home. He liked the feeling of belonging somewhere, of having a base. And he loved the fact that his Lil was happy here, that she felt safe knowing it was hers no matter what.

His boys started fighting, they were watching Tom and Jerry on TV and arguing over who should be the cat and who the mouse. His daughters went over to them and, as always, Kathy sat with Pat Junior and Eileen sat with Lance. The girls' presence stopped the fighting in its tracks and he was proud of his boys and their gentle way with their sisters.

He was shattered and as he sat back on the sofa and relaxed, Lil brought him in a cup of strong, sweet tea. He pulled her down beside him, kissing her hard, slipping his tongue into her mouth and he felt her responding as she always did. She could never be angry with him for long. As angry as she got, she needed him like other women needed to eat and drink. Without him, she was nothing. Without him, her life was empty, even with four children to occupy her time. She hated herself for it, but she accepted it as part of her life.

The awkwardness between them was over once more, until the next time. But the accusation was still behind her eyes, as was the tired acceptance of his lifestyle and the effect it had on her and their family.

He was a man and, in their world, that meant he could do what he wanted. She didn't like it, but she dealt with it. It was this he found so hard to cope with. She was worth better than that and they both knew it.

Spider was drinking white rum and smoking a twist; the scent of cannabis was heavy on the air. His girlfriend, a young Jamaican woman with braided hair and almond-shaped eyes, was nursing her baby son while listening to Peter Tosh on the sound system.

Spider watched Rochelle lazily, his thick dreadlocked hair hanging over his face, his eyes closing with tiredness. Like Patrick, he had been out on the lam for a few days; unlike Patrick, his girlfriend had eaten his face off when he had come home. Finally, and with much persuasion on his part, she had calmed down enough to nurse their baby. He knew he was going to have to do some serious grovelling over the next few days to get her back onside. She was a good girl and he loved her; she was fiery, too young for him really, but she had heart and he respected that.

There was a knock on his front door and Spider had to shake himself awake to answer it. He was seriously stoned and he opened the front door with difficulty. The house was like a fortress and he took his time unbolting the front door. He knew who was behind it and he was smiling genially when he finally slid the last lock.

'Fucking hell, man, this place is like Fort Knox.' Spider's younger brother, Cain, was standing there, grinning.

Cain was the antithesis of Spider in that he had short, cropped hair and he favoured tailored trousers and understated shirts. Spider was a larger-than-life character and his apparel reflected that. He was wearing baggy tracksuit bottoms and a pure-cotton embroidered overshirt that looked tight on his heavy frame. With his dreads and his moccasins, he looked every inch the Rasta dealer. Cain was an up-and-coming young blood; at twenty-one he had the nerve and the nous to make his mark on his community. He had an easy way about him that belied the strength and single-mindedness that was only evident to the people who knew him. Spider was twelve years older than him and proud of the young man he was grooming for the future and for his eventual retirement.

'You got my money?'

Cain laughed, his white, even teeth glinting in the sunlight. 'Shut the fucking door. You the one who told me never to talk business in the street or me own backyard!'

As he locked up once more, Spider could hear his brother chatting about his nephew's good looks and flirting with Rochelle. The boy was a natural-born womaniser and, listening to him talking and joking with his Rochelle, he felt the love that many men reserved for their children. He loved his life. It was times like this that made him realise just how lucky he was.

'They are coining it in and walking all over us, Dave, and we are being fucking mugged-off.'

Dave Williams sighed as he listened once more to his brother Dennis's usual litany of perceived wrongs. Since Dicky had been murdered he had taken on the mantle of the older brother and it was hard. Dicky had been the main man; he had always known what to do and how to do it. Dave tried and Patrick gave him his due, but he was always worried that he would get it wrong. Dicky's death had left a hole that Dave knew he wasn't able to fill, and he had the distinct impression his brothers felt the same way as he did. They were grown men now, and he knew they were itching to get a few quid off their own backs. He was now the eldest and they respected him, but they were not boys any more. They were a handful, and he knew that better than anyone.

'Relax, for fuck's sake! You're like an old woman.'

'Fucking relax? You have the audacity to tell me to relax?'

Dennis had his usual petulant look; he had a temper and it was not easily kept under control. He had always kicked off at the slightest tiling; he saw insults where none were forthcoming and he heard conversations that had never taken place. He was a lairy fucker and he was getting harder and harder to control.

'No one can get a fucking foot on the front line and that is what's giving me the fucking hump. Spider and his brother have sewn it all up.'

Dave sipped his coffee in silence and waited for the rant to continue as he knew it would. This had been a daily occurrence since Dennis had tried to shift some speed in south London; he had sold enough for a small profit, but he had not sold enough for his liking. He had also been warned off; in a nice way, with respect, but to be warned off was something that had never happened to any of them in living memory. They were the ones who did the warning and they were not about to step back and watch others get a serious graft without them even having a touch. It had caused a lot of upset and a lot of bad feeling towards Patrick Brodie, who was being seen more and more as a traitor by his own workforce.

Dennis was stalking round the room. His broad shoulders were stiff with the anger he was feeling and his moonface was screwed up with hatred and humiliation.

'To add insult to fucking injury, Dave, that black cunt and his cohorts are dealing all over the show. They are in every nook and cranny; the pavement stinks of them, so where does that leave us? Fucking Brodie is all right, ain't he? He is in league with them, he fucking owns them. He is raking it in, but what about us, Dave? I was told to fuck off last night, as if I was a fucking ice-cream, a cunt. I was told that Ilford and Barking were no-go areas because that lot were already dealing out of Celebrities nightclub in Forest Gate.' Dennis shook his head in bewilderment.

'We have nowhere to peddle anything. They've sewn up the Lacy Lady, Room at the Top and the fucking Tavern. Lautrec's is already part of their domain and Southend is sewn up tighter than a nun's crack. It's everywhere we go; Raquel's in Basildon, the fucking Roxy, the Vortex, Dingwall's in Camden. There is not a pub or a club left that we can call our own, from the Old Rose to the Dean Swift, and that even includes The Green Man, my watering-hole. They have Callie Road, the fucking main pubs, the fucking docks and all the poxy local boozers. They are like fucking leeches taking the food out of my kid's mouth.' He spat into the fireplace for maximum effect.

'We have got fuck all left, their boys are even selling speed in the fucking Beehive on Brixton Road and they are, by nature, puffers. The West End and Islington are overrun with that smooth-talking ponce's fucking minions and I ain't swallowing no more. We either have a touch or we take it over once and for all.'

'Will you fucking calm down?'

'Calm down? You want me to calm down? Who are you, the fucking yoga king of East London? Up yours, Dave. I want this fucking sorted, and I want it sorted soon. Spider and his brother are riding around in fucking flash cars with all sorts of fucking weapons. They are kinging it up like they own the fucking show and we are expected to just fucking tug our forelocks and not say a word? We can't even shift anything in Manchester, Liverpool or fucking Scotland. We have been frozen out, fucked off like recalcitrant school boys and all you can say is calm down? Are you stuck up Brodie's arse or what?'

Dave didn't answer, it was pointless, but he was digesting the information. He knew that he was going to have to sort this out sooner rather than later, because his brothers were on his case now. Drugs, speed in particular, was big business and they had invested a lot of money into it. The problem was that Pat was not only a good mate but he was also their biggest rival and, short of selling to him personally at a loss, they were in right lumber. Pat wasn't going to pay over the odds for the gear and who could blame him?

But he was out of order to assume that they wouldn't want a bite of what was a fucking lucrative business. Just because they had not bothered with it in the beginning did not mean they were going to walk away from an earner now the product was in such high demand. If Spider had stuck to his own turf, none of this would have happened. Everyone could have had a bite, and everyone would have been happy.

Dave chose to ignore the fact that Pat Brodie was running the show and that anything outside south London was his domain. He conveniently forgot that Pat had offered them an in many times and they had been too busy chasing the dollar in other areas. He also chose to disregard the warnings that Pat had given him in a very gentle but firm way; they were free to pursue their dealings as long as it didn't encroach on any existing businesses he had already put in place. Basically, he had insinuated that they had missed the boat and it was too late now to start complaining about it.

But, as Dennis had pointed out, if they were dealing out of all the nightclubs and they had a monopoly, then a talk was definitely in order. He was aware that most of the little firms could only deal because they had Pat's permission to do so and that they were only answerable to Spider, who was universally acknowledged as Pat's front man where the Persian Rugs were concerned. This, of course, was the bugbear where his brothers were concerned.

They were feeling left out, feeling that they were being overlooked, insulted even. The boys were men and, like all up-and-coming youngsters, they were ripe for an excuse to flex their muscles, to make their mark. They were greedy little fuckers, and they were dangerous because of that. The only reason they had been given such a ride over the last couple of years was because of Patrick Brodie, but they were not intelligent enough to suss that out and he was not about to mention that fact just yet. Dennis was their spokesman, the only one with the guts to come into his home and air his grievances. The others would follow, he knew, but only when they were assured they would have a friendly reception.

They were conveniently forgetting all the graft they had because of Pat, all the money they were raking in with him on other businesses. The speed was making them greedy; the money to be earned was astronomical and naturally they wanted in on it. The groundwork had been done, as it had always been done for them, though they couldn't see that of course. They were heavies, no more and no less, and their egos were bigger than King Kong's cock, but they were adamant they were not going to take 'no' for an answer.

Dave was starting to see his brother's point of view; that they were being treated like second-class citizens and that they would be better off without Brodie.

He was honest enough, at times, to admit to himself that Pat had overtaken him; he saw an opportunity and he went for it, taking Dave and his brothers along with him. It irked Dave at times because he not only wanted to have the respect Brodie commanded; he also wanted to be seen as a vital link in the criminal chain that ruled London.

The fact that people were relaxed enough to tell his brothers that they were not going to deal with them, thank you very much, because they were already being served up by Spider, was another reminder that they were, and always would be, only foot soldiers to Brodie. This was a melon-scratcher all right, and he needed to think about it long and hard before he did anything of any substance. Once something like this was put into words and thereby into the public domain, there was no going back. He needed to seriously consider their options and the best way to approach the problem in hand.

'Let me think about it, all right?'

Dennis nodded imperceptibly. He was halfway home and he knew it; he had given his brother the bullets, now it was up to him to fire them.

Annie was putting the children to bed and, as usual, Lance was playing her up. She pulled him on to her lap and whispered in his ear as she always did. 'Once the others drop off, come out to your nana, darling.'

This was despite the fact that Pat had made a point of telling her that the children were to go to bed at the same time, and if he did find out that she had been favouring Lance, she was out for good. She and Pat had an uneasy alliance in that she made sure she didn't antagonise him and he made sure she spent as little time with the kids as possible.

'I don't want to sit with you, Nana.'

Lance's petulant face was beginning to irritate her and she took a deep breath before saying quietly, 'I have a few sweeties for you, and you can watch TV? Her voice was soft and the other children watched the little tableau with interest.

'Come on, darling. Nana has missed you, give me a hug?' The yearning was in her voice and the child picked up on it, knew he had the upper hand, and used it to his advantage.

'No, Nana. I'm tired.' Lance pulled away from her, his thickset body almost knocking her off the chair with its strength. He hated the feel of her rough hands on him, the way she pulled him about, kissed him all the time and squeezed him into her body, nearly suffocating him. But he loved the power he had over her, and because of that, he had power over his brother and sisters. His nana adored him and tolerated them, they all knew that. Because it had always been like that none of them questioned it; they were just glad she didn't feel the same way about them.

It was the first time in ages that Annie had babysat. Pat made sure she spent as little time as possible with the kids and she knew she was on borrowed time. Lil was not enamoured of her any more either, so she had to sit it out and wait until they were desperate before she got access to the one thing that made her life bearable.

'Kiss your poor old nana and we'll play games; whatever you like.'

Lance shook his head and said loudly and with force, 'I don't want to, Nana. I don't like you any more.'

The hurt in her faded eyes made him feel a moment's sadness, but she made him feel uncomfortable and he had realised, as young as he was, that her feelings for him were not healthy. His mother had no real time for him; he knew that she didn't love him like she did the others. But his nana, who worshipped him, just made him want to hurt her. She smelt awful and she made him feel like he was being suffocated.

The smack was loud in the room and all four children jumped with fright. Lance had a red mark on his face and he stared at Annie with defiance and hatred as she started to berate him.

Pat Junior pushed his sisters from the untidy living room and walked back towards his brother. He grabbed his arm and started to pull him from the room, all the time Annie's screaming and swearing was ringing in their ears.

'You two-faced little fucker, all I've done for you…'

It was the usual litany of complaints and both boys closed their ears to it.

Lance watched helplessly as Pat Junior was dragged back into the middle of the room by his hair. All his power was gone now, and he knew it. His nana was off on one of her rants and no one could calm her down. He ran from the room and went up the stairs to his sisters, settling them into their beds and listening to the commotion below him.

Pat Junior felt her nails in his scalp and, turning towards his grandmother, he landed a hefty kick on to her shins, making her let go of him, and also making her curse louder than ever. He was eight years old and he pushed her forcefully and shouted, 'I am telling my dad about you.'

Annie knew she had gone too far and forced herself to calm down.

She looked at the boy in front of her and, smiling tremulously, she did what she always did. With eyes full of tears and a broken voice she said sadly, 'I am so sorry, child, but I miss you all so much, and you are all so horrible to me…'

Pat Junior stood there without any expression on his face and after a few seconds he said with quiet dignity, 'We are never rude to anyone. My sisters need a drink of hot milk and a story and I am telling my mum that we don't want you looking after us any more.'

Annie was in bits at his words. If the kids mentioned what had happened she would be relegated to the wilderness once more and she needed to be around Lance like other people needed water or food.

As Annie tidied the room, she felt the jealousy that ate at her like a cancer once more. The house was large, beautifully decorated and peopled by a family who loved and cared for one another; Patrick and Lance had proved that much this night. Her daughter and her lifestyle was like a thorn in her side. She produced children with ease and kept a man in her bed without even trying. She was everything that Annie Diamond had wanted to be and more. People actually liked Lil, she still had her friends from the factory and she attracted new friends. She was a naturally happy person and, other than Pat's sojourns every now and then, she loved her life. It was all this that made Annie resent her only daughter so much: that her child could have made something of her life without even trying, galled. That she was dependent on her daughter for the very bread she ate was something she would never be able to forgive, even though she had been living off her only child since the day she had started work. Sighing heavily, she made the hot milk Pat Junior had requested for his sisters. Then she placed biscuits and cake on to a tray and went up to her grandchildren to attempt to repair the damage she had caused earlier.

She smiled when she saw the twins asleep in their brothers' arms, even though the urge to batter Lance was so overwhelming that she had to breathe in deeply to calm herself down. But instinctively she knew it was Patrick Junior who was the dangerous one, the one who she needed on her side, so she concentrated her efforts on him.

Like his father, you couldn't fathom what was going on behind his deep-set blue eyes. And like his father, she knew he was going to become one dangerous fucker in the future; he had the same arrogance, the same blank stare and, uncannily, the same presence that had made his father a man to be wary of. He was still only a lad, but the coldness in his expression was enough to make anyone uneasy if they found it directed at them.

Cain was smiling as Dennis Williams bought him another drink.

They were in the Burford Arms in east London; it was a predominantly black pub, but Dennis was a frequent, if not exactly welcome, visitor. He had a few of the boys around Stratford on his payroll and he paid them out there. Cain was often in there having a drink while he sorted out business and the two men had always had a good rapport until recently. Cain could not say exactly when the dynamics of the relationship between them had changed, but he knew it had now gone too far to attempt any kind of reconciliation. He knew it was over the drugs and he was not about to climb down or give this fucker an inch. This was personal now; it was about territory and making sure no one took what was rightfully yours.

He was secure enough while Dennis was alone, the brothers did give him pause for thought though. But he was relaxed enough knowing that Brodie was behind them. He reasoned that the Williamses had enough going on without pulling Brodie and his businesses into the limelight with public aggravation. Cain had a crew that stayed close and watched over him at all times. The Williamses were not people to take lightly or to overlook; they were dangerous fucks and he knew that he needed to watch his back. He was sorry though, because he had always rated Dave and his family. It was a shame that it was going wrong now, but that was the times they were living in.

Cain knew that Dennis and his younger brothers, Bernie and Tommy, had attempted to muscle in on his operation but he was wise enough to keep that gem of wisdom to himself; once they showed their hand, he would show his. He always had a contingency plan; Brodie had taught him that much.

Chapter Seven

'He walks all over you and you are too stupid to see it.'

Lil was pregnant again and this time it was not easy for her. She was constantly sick and her body didn't feel like her own any more. She felt exhausted, couldn't keep anything down and, worst of all, as far as she was concerned, she couldn't even face a cigarette or a cup of tea, which was her usual pregnancy staple diet. She knew her mother was taking advantage of her but she felt so ill with this baby that she didn't have the energy to argue with her. She watched as Annie busied herself, her slim back stiff with indignation, and marvelled, as she always did, that one person could hold so much animosity inside without exploding in some way. She was determined never to let anything in life make her as bitter and twisted as Annie Diamond. She couldn't remember a time when she was growing up that her mother had not worn a frown and when she saw her smiling at her grandchildren, especially the twins, it hurt her deeply. She still made Lily feel inadequate, unloved, and she undermined the very structure of the life that the daughter she loathed, provided for her. A better life than she could ever have dreamt of. Lily always bunged her mother well, made sure she had a few quid in her pocket and saw to it that her bills were taken care of.

'Out till all hours, whoring, I should imagine. It's a wonder you ain't caught nothing from him, especially in your condition.'

'Stop it, Mum. He'll be in any minute and you know he can't stand it when you're here anyway, so don't fucking antagonise him.'

The fact that Lily swore at Annie showed just how far they had actually come over the years. Annie had to toe the line if she wanted any kind of access to her daughter or her daughter's family. Even Pat had to admit that the twins had melted Annie's hard heart. They were gorgeous, and Annie, against her will, had fallen in love with them like everyone else. They were little cases and when they ran into Annie's open arms she felt the love that they seemed to have in abundance. Lance would always be her Golden Boy, but the girls were a close second and Lil watched them charm the woman she alternately loved and hated in equal measure.

That she was trying to cause more fights than John Wayne because of Pat's nights on the razzle was a bone of contention between them. Lil knew that her mother was stirring it, wanted them to fall out because with Pat out of the way she would get a far better stranglehold on her daughter and the children. Pat hated Annie and made no secret of that fact. He would insult her to her face and she would take it, amazingly often, in really good part. In fairness to Patrick, he could be funny, and he was fast with a quip. He slaughtered his mother-in-law with a malicious humour that caused belly laughs to anyone in earshot.

That her mother continued to come round was a constant source of amazement to Lil. Anyone else would have beaten a retreat long ago, but in a strange way she was glad, and she relied on her because she was always knackered. Annie made her life easier and she was almost lovable at times, if they were not discussing her husband of course. She knew her stepfather was somewhere in the background and she accepted that. As long as he kept away from her she didn't give a damn.

'I'm just saying that you should put your bleeding foot down, love, four kids and he still thinks he's a fucking teenager.'

Lil sighed. 'Put a sock in it; he is all right. I know he wouldn't do anything to hurt me or the kids so let it go, will you?'

This time her voice had an edge to it and Annie knew that she had gone as far as she could. Lil was still protective over her husband and even in the club and feeling like shit she would only take so much.

'Where is he anyway?'

Annie always wanted to know Pat's movements and Lil rarely obliged her by explaining where he was supposed to be. There was something about Annie that told her daughter not to trust her with any information whatsoever, no matter how innocent that information might be. Even her stepfather had an unhealthy interest in what was going on. She wondered once more why she needed her mother so much when the woman had never given her an ounce of loyalty or care. Annie Diamond had treated her with utter contempt all her life, even as a small child, and yet she still felt the need to be near her. As she watched her mother wipe down the kitchen worktops and rinse out the cloths, she once again questioned her own motives for keeping the woman who had despised her in her life.

The children were playing in the parlour and their voices drifted into the kitchen. She could hear Pat Junior telling the girls to keep quiet so they didn't disturb their mummy and she loved her eldest child for his kindness and his thoughtfulness. Then she heard Lance telling them to piss off and his voice grated on her like scratching on a blackboard. His voice set her teeth on edge and she knew her mother was aware of that and used it against her. There was the same whine in it that her mother had; it was a nasal kind of voice that had no real inflection to it. Just a flat and constant drone that made Lil feel like punching his lights out at times. Especially now, at five months pregnant and feeling seriously under the weather.

She wished that she could take to her younger son, but it had never happened and she knew it was too late now to do anything about it. She pretended a love she didn't feel and this made her so ashamed. She knew it was also partly the reason her mother was still in her life but she could never admit all this out loud; especially not to her husband who doted on the twins and loved his two boys with a passion. Both of them.

'There will be ambulances arriving, Pat, and you know it.'

Spider said the words without passion and Patrick knew that what he was saying was true. The situation was becoming unbearable for them all and the atmosphere was starting to make everyone nervous. In some ways he wanted it to go off so they could finally bring it to an end. Resolve it once and for all; it would be a bloody and vengeful affair but at least it would be over. Patrick could hear the want in Spider's voice and knew that he had to sort this out sooner rather than later.

Spider was oozing menace and hatred; he was old school like himself and he was on the verge of total annihilation. Despite himself, Patrick Brodie was also getting caught up in his excitement.

'I am telling you that we can't swallow this any more; if we carve this lot up, what's next? The clubs, the pubs, the fucking cab ranks, what?'

Patrick shrugged. 'I'll talk to Dave. He ain't a cunt, he'll understand the seriousness of the situation and sort it out.'

Spider rubbed his large hands over his dreadlocks in agitation. 'He won't, Pat, he is as bad as them now. He asked me how much I was going to pass on to him not an hour ago, as if it was his fucking birthright or something. Like we were doing them out of a wage. They are in the fucking bar now, acting like they own the fucking place and making snide remarks. This is our boozer, we bought it fair and square. Fuck them, fuck them all. I ain't fucking swallowing this in front of everyone.'

Spider was spoiling for a straightener and Pat knew he had every right to feel that way but he was also confident that this could all be sorted amicably. He didn't want to take sides but if he did, he knew it would be Spider's, and he had a gut feeling that the Williams brothers knew that too. They owed him; he had paid out for their brother's death and given them a living the likes of which they could only have dreamt of. They were flexing their muscles and he was beginning to feel that a lesson might need to be distributed. If that was the case, he was going to enjoy doling it out himself. They were starting to get on his nerves and that was never a good idea where he was concerned.

They needed to be put in their place, that was all. No one in their right mind seriously expected a drink off work they had not taken any part in either creating or, more to the point, working up from scratch. The Williams brothers were pushing their luck and he knew that, as much as he didn't really want to admit it out loud, Spider had a valid and honest beef with them. Pat also knew it was Spider's hold over the London drug scene that was the bone of contention; the fact was that they had overlooked a fucking serious wedge because deep down inside they had not wanted to work with the blacks.

No one had ever said any of this out loud, but it was glaringly obvious to him, so he knew that it had to be obvious to Spider as well. Spider was one of the most astute people he had ever come across in his life so he had to have sussed that much out from the off.

Dave and his brothers were bully boys, no more and no less. They were basically muscle and, without Pat, they would have been scratching a living debt-collecting or bouncing. An original thought in any of their heads would die of fucking loneliness and they had the nerve to try to cause aggravation when they had their very livelihoods to thank him for in the first place. Spider and himself had made all the connections needed, paid out where necessary and strong-armed anyone who had been averse to their having control over the merchandise that hit the streets. There was no way Pat would carve that up to keep a few bullies in place, it was a ridiculous thing to expect and the Williams brothers had gone down in his estimation because of it.

Without him, and without Spider, they were nothing. He had tried to bring them up in the firm and it had been a fucking waste of time, so if they needed that pointed out to them then he knew it was up to him to do it. Spider and his opinions would not go down well with the Williams boys. He was going to have to sort this out himself.

Lisa Callard was tired and as she pulled on her underwear, she was attempting to stifle a yawn. She had a thin body, boyish almost, and her feather-cut hair gave her the look of a very pretty elf. She had small breasts and a tight behind which made most men give her a second glance. She was on the ball enough to put out only for men who could either give her a few quid or enhance her reputation, and as Dennis Williams could do both these things for her, she was more than happy to let him have carte blanche over her adolescent body. At a very young age she had understood the power that youth had over men and she had exploited it ever since. Her mother had wasted too much of her youth and looks on the ponce who had fathered her and Lisa had decided early on that the pill and opening her legs would gain her what her mother had never had: a few quid in her bin, a nice car and peace of mind. That she was also seeing Brixton Cain was not on her mind, though she knew it was part of her charm as far as Dennis was concerned.

Dave and Dennis Williams watched Lisa lazily; she was only a kid really, but she was a game bird for all that. Earlier, Dave had walked into the bedroom and sat down quietly on the small white wicker chair his mother had purchased on the Portobello Road and watched his brother finish his business. As Lisa pulled on her skirt she said hoarsely, 'Am I staying?'

Dennis shook his head, and leaning over the side of the bed picked up his trousers off the floor and took out a small roll of money and gave it to her. Kissing him gently, Lisa grabbed the rest of her clothes and walked from the room. She nearly collided with Doris Williams who had a tray of teas and a plate of biscuits.

'You off, love.' It was statement, not a question.

Doris placed the tray on the small dressing table noisily and her sons watched her with wary eyes.

She looked at Dave then, and her eyes were like ice. 'You got my money?'

Dave sighed. 'Leave it out, Mother. You know the score where that cunt is concerned. Tell him to pay his own fucking debts.'

The words had a finality about them that anyone else would have picked up on but his mother had no intention of letting this go. 'What's a couple of grand to you two?'

She sat on the crumpled bed and, picking up Dennis's pack of cigarettes, she lit one with a slow deliberation that told her sons she was willing to sit this one out for the night. Doris Williams was a fighter, had always been a fighter and would continue to be a fighter. Since her husband's death two years previously, she had gone through a series of men; men her sons saw as either ponces, or right fucking ponces, depending. There was no way anyone was going to take their father's place and she understood and respected that, but now she had been given a taste of freedom and she liked it. Her boys were not going to change that fact.

Her new beau was a gambler ten years her junior with long black hair, sad blue eyes and a cock that was so big it could easily get its own postcode. She had put in her time with her old man and now she was having a bit of fun. Even though her sons knew the life she had been led by their father, they still thought she was too old and too stupid to know her own mind.

'Don't fucking start lecturing me either, I ain't in the mood. I want the poke; it was me as well as him having a flutter and, let's face it, you lot fucking owe me.'

There was truth in that statement. She always spoke in statements somehow, she was a very dramatic woman, much taken to brightly coloured clothes and too tight skirts. In their hearts they knew the truth of it, but she was still their mum when all was said and done, and she was an embarrassment.

'I just want me due, that's all.'

Dennis was covered by the blanket but now he wanted to get up and go to the toilet and his mother sitting on the bed was making that impossible.

'I know everything about you lot and you better remember that, boys. I stood between you and your old man when he was giving you a hiding and took the brunt of it meself. I have provided an alibi for every one of you at some time or another, as I am sure I will in the future, and now I am asking you lot to let me have a bit of life.'

In the harsh light of the naked bulb, Dave could make out the scars around his mother's mouth from his father's fists, the lines around her eyes that they had all helped put there over the years and the thick eye make-up that she had taken to wearing because her husband would have scrubbed it off with a Brillo pad had he still been alive. She was in her second childhood and, in fairness to her, she deserved a bit of excitement. She had been chained to this house all her married life; his father had been a hard man who had been quick with his fists and even quicker with a leather belt. But she was going through money like it was water and they were not actually as well-heeled as everyone seemed to think. They lived well and spent well and even though they earned a decent wedge, the money was going out as fast as it was coming in.

Dave had also made a lot of bad business decisions over the last year and he had lost a small fortune on dope deals that had not come to fruition. The trouble with the puff was that the money was always paid out upfront and if the merchandise was intercepted before it arrived at the correct destination, everyone lost their initial investment. The police had been waiting at the last three drops, two at airfields and one on the Thames estuary. It had been no one's fault, even though that fucking Spider and his brother seemed to produce cannabis out of thin air and his brothers had questioned why they never had a fucking capture of any kind. In his heart he knew that the underlying accusations were not only unfair, but complete rubbish.

Spider had sewn it all up a long time before they had decided to try to get an in themselves. Spider's stuff came straight out of the docks and it was good gear; the stuff they managed to procure was low-grade and had more seeds in it than a packet of Trill. The reality was that they had been had over, not once but many times, and without going to Patrick Brodie and asking him to step in and sort it out, there was not a lot they could do about it.

The realisation that they were only regarded as part of his workforce bothered them more than any of them cared to admit. It seemed that the truth did indeed hurt, and Spider's growing place in Patrick's heart had not only been observed, but acknowledged, by all the powers that be.

Basically, they had been shown up for the motley crew they actually were and without any real poke to spread around they were in danger of going broke.

Dave had lost over two hundred grand in the last ten months, and his brothers had lost a similar amount between them as well. It was a lot of money. Money they didn't have any more and money they were not in a position to replace any time in the near future. They were all boracic lint and they were starting to panic; they owed money all over the Smoke and they knew it was only a matter of time before the creditors started whispering to Patrick.

Bank robbery was on the cards; it was the only earner left to them. The bugbear with that though, was that they would need to run it by Patrick first and give him a taste of whatever they managed to get.

'You'll get your money, Mum, but fucking go easy on it this time, OK?'

Doris nodded, pleased the conversation was over.

'Bacon sandwich, anyone?'

'Here, Annie, I got you a part-time job, love, haunting fucking houses!'

Pat Junior and Lance laughed out loud; their laughter tinged with shock, as always, that their father dared to talk to their granny like that. The girls, happily ensconced in their father's arms, were laughing because everyone else was laughing.

Annie carried on smiling her martyr smile as her son-in-law bellowed, 'Get off your cross, woman, we need the fucking wood!'

Lil smiled too and Pat looked at her for long seconds before saying seriously, 'You all right, girl, need the quack?'

Lil shook her head and Pat looked into her eyes. He worshipped her and lately the thought of her going through another pregnancy worried him. She wasn't right this time and she looked dreadful; even her lovely thick hair looked lank and her face was drawn.

'I'm OK. Fancy a cuppa?'

Pat looked at the boys as he shouted irreverently, 'Let Attila the fucking Hun make it!'

Pat sat beside Lil and pulled her into his arms. 'You look whacked-out, girl.'

'I am a bit. Look at your gorgeous daughters.'

Lil always changed the subject if it was about the way she looked or felt; she continued to collect certain rents for her husband and did the prison visits when they were needed. She didn't want him to see her as weak, even though that was how she felt lately. She wanted him to trust her and rely on her. Lily knew almost as much about the businesses as he did, and although he was only trying to save her energy by giving her a break, she wasn't happy about it.

'My pair of beauties.' Pat grinned once more. He was ageing fast but she still felt the pull of him when he looked at her full-on. She grinned too, her perfect white teeth at odds with her white face.

'The girls look at you with such love, Pat.'

He opened his arms in a gesture of understanding. 'All women look at me like that.'

This was said arrogantly and, too late, he saw the way she was staring at him. He saw the fear and the loneliness inside her, the sadness his silly words had caused, and he cursed women and their bloody moods.

'I was only joking, darling.'

But the moment was gone again. This was happening a lot lately and it was starting to get on his nerves; he had enough on his mind without her looking for poxy rows as well.

'Why do you wind yourself up, Lil? It was a joke, that's all. Look at the kids' faces.'

Lil could see the exasperation in his eyes and the children watching their parents with worried expressions, and she saw then that they picked up on everything around them and it wasn't healthy. She knew it was her, her feeling so rough, her worry that Pat was going to either get nicked or go off with a newer model. The latter was the biggest fear of all; there was an old saying about how if a wandering old man got his collar felt, at least you knew where they were. She now knew how true that was.

'Go and play upstairs, kids. Mummy's feeling a bit tired.'

Pat Junior and Lance picked up a sister each and left the warmth of the room without question. Annie, Lil knew, had her ears on red alert as she listened to everything that was being said between them.

'I'm sorry, Pat. I just feel so rough all the time…'

He cuddled her into him again and she could smell cigarettes and the lingering aroma of cheap perfume.

'You've got to stop this, Lil. You are me girl, always will be. You're the mother of me children for fuck's sake.' His voice was earnest and she wished with all her heart that she could believe him, but she knew him better than he knew himself. She forced a smile as she answered him.

'I look like a bloody cow. Don't take no notice, it's just me hormones talking.'

'More like your fucking mother talking.' Pat pulled her face up to his and kissed her on the lips.

'You're my wife and you're the world to me. I am out collaring every day to provide for you all, OK?'

Lil nodded again and he felt the strength of his love for her. Why couldn't she believe that even at her heaviest, with her belly hanging down to her knees, she could never look more beautiful to him than when she was carrying his children. Fuck knows, he had made enough of them with her. Now he had the unenviable task of telling her he was on the out again tonight.

That little gem was going to go down like a two-ton tart in the back of a Mini.

Cain and Spider were stoned and as the night drew in, they settled down to watch some TV while they waited for people to collect their gear. They doled out anything over 2.2 lb themselves. It didn't matter whether it was puff or speed; they wanted to see who was new to the game and find out their connections. It was a point of honour now that the Williams brothers didn't score from them by any means. They had a good rapport with the people they weighed out to, and any new faces brought in had to be referenced by at least two of their trusted dealers. Especially if they were white.

Skinheads were smoking puff like there was no tomorrow and so were the middle-class white boys. It was becoming the drug of choice for a whole generation. Together with the new seventies music scene and the opening up of so many clubs all over the Smoke and the Home Counties, speed was also an earner. Pills were still going strong, but the preference was for the white powder.

1976 was the year of the snort with punks desperate to stay up all night, the rude boys wanting the blues that lasted for days on end and the casuals with their Depeche Mode and asymmetric haircuts. Selling speed was like printing money and that was why they changed flops every few months; no reason to ask for trouble. By five in the morning they would have about eighty grand in the room with them and that was a temptation to anyone, let alone the people they dealt with on a daily basis.

This flop was new and they had made a point of making it habitable. Hence the TV and the comfortable sofa. It was a large property in Clapham and it was rented out by the room. The place stank of goat meat and sweat and there were people in and out at all hours of the day and night which was a bonus as far as they were concerned. It was owned through a holding company that had its annual AGM in Jamaica. By the time the tax man finally worked out who actually owned the place they would be retired and living in Montego Bay.

All in all, it was a good flop and it was also worth a few bob from the rents. It was full of black men and white girls, it always had music blaring and, in that respect, it was no different to any other house in the street.

They felt safe there and so they only had two guns with them, both ex-army-issue pistols. One was a thirty-eight and the other was a forty-five, which was enough firepower to do real damage, yet small enough to tuck into a waistband and hide from prying eyes. But they weren't too bothered about security, in fact they were overconfident. Outside, in a Ford Zodiac, sat three Rastas who had not yet embraced the beautiful meaning of their religion. They would shoot their own mothers if they tried to have any of them over.

They had also clocked Dennis Williams and his little crew when they had driven by not ten minutes before. Dennis had looked them over as if they were so much shit on his shoes and the Rastas had taken it; give the boys a false sense of security, that was their motto. Anyone who listened to music that had words like Ballroom Blitz in it, deserved all they got. The Rastas had guns and machetes and they were ready for anything the white boys had to offer them. In fact, they were looking forward to a real straightener, it would sort out the men from the white boys once and for all.

Dennis was rocking. He had been drinking steadily all day and he was up for a fight. The Rastas in the car earlier had really given him the taste for a violent confrontation; it was only his baby brother, Ricky, driving them to the pub that had stopped anything from occurring.

'Calm down, for fuck's sake.'

Ricky was a little hard nut, not as big as his brothers, but he had a quick wit and an even quicker temper. But he was also sensible enough to know that Dave would have their balls for breakfast if anything happened without his express say-so or knowledge. Dave was still sucking Brodie's cock and as much as that annoyed him, Dave was still the driving force of the family and Ricky respected that.

He knew that Dave was trying to stop this going off. But even he was beginning to see why the others were getting the serious ache. The blacks were fucking all over the place and, no matter how much the Williams boys were told they had missed their chance, it was fucking out of order that they were practically paupers in the grand scheme of things.

Ricky had just got his latest bird in the club and he needed some spondoolies to weigh her out for the new arrival. It was therefore a matter of grave importance to him that he was skinter than a striking miner. By the time he pulled up outside the Beckton speiler they ran, Ricky was already spoiling for the fight he had prevented.

It took him, Bernie and Dave five minutes to get Dennis inside, on account of the fact that there were three girls outside with schoolie written all over them, wearing skirts shorter than a traffic warden's attention span.

'Come on darlings, show us your tits.'

The girls were scandalised and thrilled at the same time but they were also relieved when the other men finally dragged Dennis into the pub.

The brothers made their way to the back room, acknowledging people as they went. Dave looked around him as he half-carried, half-dragged Dennis to safety. The place was packed as always, and most of the clientele were mates or associates. He knew that not much money would go over the bar; they had made a big fuck up on the Grand Opening night when they had let people have a drink on the house. It was expected now, they could never ask for payment and they were finding it hard to make ends meet. Even robbing the Cash and Carry was out of the question because they were supposed to be above all that petty fucking shit.

He only hoped that his meeting with Patrick later on in the evening would bring about a solution to their problems. They had spunked money up the wall left, right and centre and now there was hardly any left. They worked for Patrick Brodie and no matter how much his brothers tried to talk him into retaliation, Dave had to remember that Patrick Brodie was a bad man to fuck with. Maybe he should come clean, tell him the truth of their situation; it was no shame to lose your money where the grass was concerned. Lily Law were always in the running to get to it first and it was a chance everyone took: you weighed out knowing you would either make a real profit on your investment or lose the fucking lot. This was not, after all, legitimate business. Still, they had lost more than most and it was embarrassing to have to go to the man they depended on for their daily bread and admit that they had fucked up so phenomenally. Like Spider and his cronies, Pat was coining it in; they were like the Keystone Cops in comparison, and it was this that was causing all the bad feeling.

They were amateurs and any kudos they possessed was because Patrick Brodie was their ganger. It had been a harsh lesson for them and, as usual, he now had to try to sort it all out without any help from his brothers whatsoever.

Dennis was sitting slumped in the chair by the doorway, Bernie next to him, and little Ricky had brought them all drinks from the bar. As they sat and chatted, Dennis finally sobered up enough to make relative sense; he was still off his face but the pills he had been given by Ricky seemed to be doing the job. He was now speeding out of his nut, the blue ones he had necked were making him dry-mouthed and paranoid, not a good idea for Dennis at any time. He was a violent man by nature, and with alcohol and narcotics in his system, he was not easily controllable.

As they waited for the others to arrive, Dennis heard the loud voice of their cousin, Vincent Williams. Vince and Dennis had been rivals since boys; of a similar build and with strikingly similar looks, they had been natural antagonists.

Now Vince was buying into the doll business with Brodie and Spider, the relationship had soured even more. Dennis saw him as a traitor. He couldn't see that it suited Vince to make a few quid with guaranteed protection, he just saw his cousin raking it in and, worse than that, spending it wisely. There was a family joke that Vince was so tight even the Queen came to the opening of his wallet, but that was not really the case. Vince wasn't tight, he was simply a shrewdie. He didn't countenance hangers-on and he saw no reason to spend money unless it was to make more money. Dave and the others loved him but Dennis had always had a problem with him and the feeling was, unfortunately, mutual.

If it came to an out-and-out tumble, everyone's money was on Vince. Vince drank moderately and resisted drugs. He had two lovely kids, a wife with an arse to die for and a nice mock-Tudor house in Essex. Vince had made his fortune on the horses; as a professional gambler he had books all over the place and he offered a point or two more than the legal bookies. He had a big clientele who had money they wanted to spend without too many questions asked about where it had come from.

Vince also paid for his drinks, never expecting anything for nothing, even from his family. He was hailing everyone with his usual camaraderie when Dennis shot out of the back room and attacked him with a length of metal pipe he always carried with him, for what he jokingly called emergencies.

As Vince went down, Dave and Ricky grabbed Dennis and dragged him off. The place was suddenly quiet and Dave looked around at the faces of his regulars: ponces and hangers-on, all drinking for free and waiting with bated breath and eyes alight with excitement for the cabaret to start. There wasn't one real mate in the whole place and even his brother didn't have enough loyalty to wish one of his own well or toast their success and good fortune.

Dave had learned nothing from his years with Patrick Brodie but it was as if someone had turned a light on in his brain. He was suddenly seeing himself and what he had achieved with a stunning clarity that was as enlightening as it was terrifying. A room full of no-necks and empty pockets did not augur well for his peace of mind or his brothers' safety. The tatty furnishings, the over-the-hill barmaids and the fug of cigarette smoke showed him the reality of what he had allowed to happen to what had once been a promising young life.

Vince was kneeling up on one knee, his head was bleeding profusely and his arm was groping about for the bar so he could hoist himself upright. He was obviously concussed and Dave felt the anger rising up inside him. He picked up the metal pipe from the floor where Dennis had dropped it and laid into his brother with all the strength he possessed. No one attempted to stop him, not even Ricky, and that spoke volumes as far as Dave was concerned.

Chapter Eight

'You nearly killed your own brother.' Dave was still covered in his brother's blood and as he listened to Patrick's shocked voice, he could smell his own sweat and vomit; it made him start to heave. Patrick stepped away from him quickly, expecting him to spew up again at any moment.

Patrick looked at the man before him and despaired of what he had been reduced to. In me years he had known Dave, he had watched as the promise he had seen in the beginning had been proved to be nothing more than youthful ambition. He had not cut it in the real world and though it had never been said out loud, it had been there between them for a long time.

He had had a lot of time for Dave and he cared about him, but he had passed him over many times because he had not had any faith left in him. Patrick had tried to help him, tried to give him advice, but it was like talking to a brick wall. With Dave, all the lights were on but no one actually seemed to live there a lot of the time. He didn't have the staying power you needed to keep moody businesses on the boil. He was a chancer by nature, like them all. Dave would be better off as a blagger; a quick fix, a good wedge. 'You all right, son?' Patrick's voice was sad and he was sorry that it had come to this.

He was also relieved that the struggle between the Williams brothers and Spider's graft had not had to be resolved by him. He liked this boy and he liked his brothers; they were useful if not indispensable. They had a history together and that meant a lot to him. He knew it was Dennis who was the driving force for most of the aggravation the family encountered and he also knew that Vince Williams, being a decent bloke, would not exact any kind of retribution. At least, he wouldn't once Pat had talked to him. This was an unfortunate turn of events and the best way to deal with it was to settle it sooner rather than later. This meet they were supposed to have had with Dave was not exactly what he had had in mind, but if it kept a turf war at bay then it could only be a good thing.

Cain and Spider were laughing as James McMullen, a large Jamaican with a permanent smile and an erratic dress sense, filled them in on what had happened to Dennis Williams.

James was feeling the buzz of the grass acutely and was in the process of building another joint of Olympian standards. The men fell quiet as the enormity of what had happened sank in.

Cain shook his head sadly, wondering what had caused the Williams family to implode so violently. 'Poor old Vince, he is a really nice bloke. A really trustworthy geezer; what was that fucking Dennis thinking about?'

Spider shrugged. 'Fucking scum, the lot of them. They think they're better than everyone else. That Dennis would take out his mother if he thought a few pennies would come his way. They are sixpenny killers, they ain't in the real world. Cheap and fucking nasty, the whole lot of them. No loyalty, no fucking respect for themselves or anyone around them.'

Cain nodded at the truth of his brother's statement. 'Imagine going for your own family though, your own flesh and blood.'

James licked the big bamboo papers he had rolled so expertly and said, matter-of-factly, 'Jealousy, man. Plain and simple jealousy. Vince is still in the game, big time, has made a few quid and continues to make a few quid. That lot owe money everywhere and the fact they are under Brodie's umbrella is the only reason they ain't been forced to cough it up yet. Debts are mounting; I heard they can't get any more credit from the fucking Cash and Carry, let alone anywhere else.'

Cain digested this bit of logic. 'Dave should have finished him off. Dennis won't let this go, he ain't got the fucking brains of a lab rat. Dave would be well advised to watch his back.'

'Where does that leave us though?' Spider asked. 'They want what we got and they will still be wanting it. It might take them a while to regroup, get back on track but, mind my words, they will still need poke. I think we should go in and finish them off", once and for all.'

James nodded in agreement but Cain wasn't so sure. He honestly believed that this was a classic case of feuding and that the Williams brothers would be too busy in-fighting in future to do anything else and he said as much.

'I don't know. They will be taking sides even as we are talking about it; Vince will want redress at some point, he ain't a cunt. He must know that if he lets this go, he will lose respect. Dave will be fighting to keep his position as head of the family because who's gonna trust him now? It's over for them, finished.'

James and Spider grinned at each other at the naivety of youth.

'Listen, boy, when something like this happens you can only do one thing in their position. And that is to bounce back bigger and better than before. It's like when the police get caught taking money; the others feel it as badly as their mates so they posse up and go out and feel everyone's collars, whether they be guilty or not, to make the public respect them once more. We all the same, we need to overcome fuck-ups by making a show of strength. We haven't seen the last of those fuckers, especially that Dennis. He is a hot-headed prick looking for something he ain't got the fucking brains to see if it was lying in the gutter and whistling at him.'

Spider laughed at James's words. 'Wisdom like that is something you gather with age, Cain. You can't buy it, no more than the Williams brothers can buy business sense or outside friendship. James be right, it's not a matter of when they will be back, it's more a matter of how. They are going to have to do something pretty spectacular to get the attention of everyone; they will need to be a talking point to regain their respect and, worst of all for us, it will entail stealing someone's livelihood. So you watch your back, they still want what we got and we still got to protect our assets.'

James nodded sagely, his big, powerful body moving gracefully with the grass he had smoked. He was mellowing out by the second, but he was still capable of keeping his reputation intact, no matter how much dope he smoked. He was a big man who was stronger than the average, both mentally and physically. He was a strategist by nature and a womaniser through choice. He was about as dangerous as any one person could be.

He pointed a large and calloused finger at Cain; he tried to teach the boy about their way of life at every opportunity. 'They be more dangerous to us now than ever before. Now they got to prove something to themselves as well as everyone else. You watch your back and you up your personal security, they be coming for us all, Brodie included. And they be coming sooner rather than later.'

Dennis was in agony. As he lay in the hospital bed he wondered at a brother who could have committed such a barbaric act against one of his own. The fact that he had attacked his cousin, a man who had stood by them in the past and lent them money on a regular basis, meant nothing to him. Dennis had always made a point of adjusting his morals to suit himself.

As he lay there, he could only think about how other people would react to what had happened, what other people would think of him, and the damage that had been done to his reputation.

That it should be a talking point, something to joke about, was driving him nearly insane. He would be discussed like a fool; he had done enough man talking to know exactly what the reception to his troubles would be in the pubs and clubs he frequented. He would be laughed at, stupid jokes would be made up at his expense and no matter how hard or how fast he sprang back, it would always be out there in the public domain. Whispered about, maybe, but still ingrained into the folklore of their world. It would have been bad enough to be trounced by a stranger, or someone he had a genuine fucking beef with, but to be humiliated by his own brother? The one person in the world he would have trusted above all others?

This was tantamount to mutiny as far as he was concerned and Dave would be made to pay for that: made to pay for his public humiliation and his loss of face. He was not going to rest until Dave had paid out for every fucking slight, real or imagined, that came his way over this debacle.

Dennis had already requested a mirror and as he looked at his badly swollen and stitched face and head, the anger once more overwhelmed him. Dave, his older brother, the person he looked up to and admired, had beaten him to within an inch of his life and he was not going to let that go.

And the fact that no one had been in to see him was also something to be addressed in the near future. His mother, the fucking poncing cunt she was, had obviously decided to take the side of who she thought was the victor. His brothers could fuck off as well, they should have been by his side, making sure that it never happened. Well, his memory was long and his temper was short, and he would pay them back with such fucking force they would think Hitler had been reincarnated and was back among them all, bombing the East End once again. Only this time, south London was going to get a turn.

Dennis knew how to play the long game and that is exactly what he was going to do. He was going to make a comeback that would shame Henry Cooper; he was going to bide his time and then, when it was all quiet and everyone thought it had blown over, he would strike with all the force he could muster.

He could hear his own breathing now; it was laboured and wheezy. He was seriously ill and, for the first time in his life, Dennis felt vulnerable and tearful, even frightened. It was an emotional time and something he would never care to repeat. Or ever forgive.

Patrick sat on the bed and watched Lil as she slept. She looked so young and so tired, even in her deep sleep, that he felt the urge to wake her and reassure her that everything was going to be OK.

He looked around the room; it was spotless. Even the bed was relatively tidy because Lil very rarely moved once she had crashed out. He tiptoed from the room and snuck downstairs to the kitchen. As he waited for the kettle to boil, he pondered on the recent events.

The Williams brothers had caused a shifting in position for all the main players on their very limited stage. They were never going to be taken seriously again; in fact they were more or less liabilities. Their debts alone put them at the bottom of the scale as far as the punters they dealt with were concerned, and he would have to reassess the part they played in his organisation. It was a difficult situation and he didn't relish having to sort it out, but in a way he was relieved, because he was going to have to push them out eventually anyway. They were not cost-effective any more and their useless grasp of any outside business was making them a laughing stock.

In his heart of hearts he knew that he should have given them a few crumbs from the drug dealing; Spider would have swallowed. But in all honesty, they were already getting on his nerves by that point. It wasn't Dave so much; he was a good guy. It was Dennis and the younger ones; they believed that they were the dog's gonads and they were anything but. They were thugs, common or garden thugs, the same kind you could see in any local pub around the Smoke.

They were fucking local heroes who would only be remembered because they could fight. Maybe they would get a lump to add a bit of excitement to their reps, then spend the rest of their lives talking about the men they had mingled with while in poke. He had known this for a long time, and now he had the proof of it.

Patrick sipped at his tea, liberally laced with brandy, and sighing, he lit himself a Dunhill cigarette. The radio was on low and he could hear the strains of the Eagles and 'Hotel California'.

He glanced around the brand-new kitchen and felt his usual sense of pride in the home he had created with his Lil. It had everything that a woman could want; every labour-saving device on the market and the freezer and fridge were always laden with food. Like Lil, he needed to be surrounded with luxuries; too much food was preferable to not enough, something they had both experienced while growing up. His children had fresh fruit and veg on tap, they had juices and sweets; they wanted for nothing. They were good kids and he was proud of them.

As Patrick poured himself out another cup of tea, the kitchen door opened and he turned to see his eldest son standing there in his pyjamas, his hair tousled and his tired eyes bright with pleasure at seeing his father.

Patrick smiled at the boy. Getting up, he fetched another cup and as Pat Junior went to get the biscuits, they both pondered on how many times they had done this before. Pat Junior lay on red alert at night, his ears tuned for the sounds of his father's presence in the house.

He was up within seconds of hearing him come in.

When they sat down together, it was with a congenial atmosphere; they were very alike and they both enjoyed the other's company. As always, Patrick waited for his son to sip at his tea, scoff a few biscuits and then start off the conversation.

It was a ritual now, their special time together, and they both knew it was a memory they would keep all their lives.

'How's it going, son?'

Pat Junior shrugged. 'You know, Dad, the usual.'

As he said that, he pulled a paper bag from inside his pyjama top. 'It's all there, Dad. I can go back next week as well if you want.'

He was deadly earnest and his handsome, boyish face was alight with expectation. A part of Patrick was proud of his son; the little jobs he gave him were worthless in many respects but he knew the boy liked earning his own few quid. Another part of him was sorry that he had taken to it so well. What he did was drop off a few bets at a friendly bookies; they were bets that were not worth much money, but Patrick took them personally because the men he dealt with were old and trusted mates. They still expected his personal touch, even though he was a busy man, but as most of them had helped his rise in one way or another, he gave them the respect they saw as their due. It had been a bonus that the bookie Patrick owned was within walking distance of his son's school and he liked the way the boy had kept it secret from everyone. He had the Brodie genes all right.

Patrick smiled, a smile that crinkled up his face and was a rare sight outside of this house. 'All there is it, son? You didn't have a dip?'

Pat Junior looked scandalised and was suddenly flustered as he said, with total honesty, 'I wouldn't, Dad, never…'

Patrick grinned again. 'I was winding you up, son, don't take things so seriously.'

He ruffled the boy's hair and pushed the biscuit tin towards him once more. Taking out a chocolate digestive, Pat Junior dipped it in his tea.

'How's everything here?'

'The usual, Dad. Mum is very tired lately and the twins are hard work. But me and Lance do what we can. Nanny Annie is a pain in the you know where, but Mum can sort her out. I make sure the rubbish is put out and any errands are done.'

This was all said with a matter of factness that made Patrick want to laugh, but he didn't because he knew his boy had a lot of dignity.

'What about school?'

Pat Junior was less forthcoming about that, as his father knew would be the case.

'No more fighting?'

'I wasn't fighting for me, was I? It was Lance I was defending. For all his bulk he can't really have a row and yet he talks a good fight, as you know.'

Indignation was threaded through the words and, once more, Patrick was reminded of his son's total honesty.

Lance was a chancer. He was a nice enough lad, but he had the weakness of the Brodie grandparents running through him like a stick of Southend rock.

'Did you talk with your brother about it?'

Pat Junior nodded. 'Course I did, but he don't listen, does he? But he don't mean it, Dad, he just doesn't know when to shut up. I ironed them out anyway, they won't be going near him now.'

Patrick looked at his little son and felt an urge to hug him close but he didn't; he knew the boy was trying to be a man and he knew that he had to treat him as such. It was a hard road to manhood and he wanted his boys to be well able for it when it finally arrived. Lance was going to need his older brother because he didn't have the cunning this little lad had in abundance. Pat Junior was his father's son and Patrick knew he had a worthy successor for his business.

'You been to mass this week?'

'I am serving as an altar boy, Dad. I ain't had much choice.'

Their quiet laughter was broken by a scream that was as terrifying as it was loud and they both sprang from their seats and ran upstairs. Kathleen was hysterical and her mother was trying to calm her down. Eileen was sitting up in bed wide-eyed and white-faced. Lance was at the doorway surveying the scene with his usual lack of interest.

'What the fuck is wrong with her, Lil?'

Lil was cuddling the crying child to her and shook her head.

'What did you see, Lance? You were first on the scene, so to speak.'

Lance shrugged nonchalantly. 'She was dreaming, I think.'

Lance walked towards Kathleen but she shrank away from him. 'Go away.'

Kathleen slipped from her mother's arms and climbed into her sister's bed. Eileen automatically made room for her and the boys looked at each other and shrugged. This was not an unusual occurrence for the girls; they often slept in each other's arms, even though they went to bed separately. Everyone put it down to them being twins; they even talked to one another in their own language.

Calmer now, the girls snuggled down to sleep, although Kathleen still had the wary eyes of a frightened animal. The twins' hair was now all tight curls and a bronze colour that enhanced the deep grey of their eyes. They had Patrick's mother's eyes but, unlike hers, the twins' eyes held only love and innocence. His mother had the hard eyes of a woman who had known too many men and lost too many dreams.

Now the drama was averted, Patrick kissed his daughters and led his sons back to their bedrooms. He could hear Lil talking to the girls, reassuring them, and he smiled once more. This house was better than a theatre; there was always a drama of some sort or another. Four kids guaranteed that much but, all in all, they were good kids and he was inordinately proud of them.

He winked at Pat Junior as he tucked him into his bed. Pat Junior's bedroom was messy; it had Boy's Own annuals and Airfix kits everywhere. A real boy's room, it was cluttered and smelt of football boots, Germolene and crisps. It had wallpaper that was covered in pictures of WW2 planes and tanks. Patrick loved this room; it was filled with everything he had never had as a child and he felt at the pinnacle of his success just breathing in the aroma.

He walked into Lance's room. Lance's fastidious ways made him smile. Unlike Pat's room, it was all neatly folded clothes and horror comics. Lance loved the occult and anything to do with vampires. His walls were covered with posters from Hammer Horror films: women with copious amounts of bosom on display being attacked by vampires or werewolves; Vincent Price grinned down from alongside Peter Cushing and Lon Chaney Jnr. The room smelt of Parma Violets and Bazooka Joe bubble gum. Lance had also had a fine collection of porn that his mother had found and confiscated. It was odd, but if it had been Pat Junior with the copies of Penthouse, he wouldn't have been so bothered but there was something wrong with Lance having it and he didn't know why. Kissing Lance's tousled hair, he closed the door quietly and went to the bedroom he shared with his wife.

Lil was already back in bed, her long hair spread across the pillows and her white breasts straining against her nightdress. She looked good enough to eat and Patrick fought down the urge to take her there and then. He knew she was not on top form and he was sorry for that in more ways than one.

As he lay beside Lil, he snuggled into her and she laughed at the erection pushing against her thigh.

'You are like those batteries they advertise on the telly. Ever-readies!'

'You know me, girl. Shag a fence I would!'

Patrick grinned and grabbed at her playfully. Lil pushed him away, good-naturedly but firmly.

'I'm sorry, Patrick. I am just about cream crackered.'

He yawned and kissed her gently. She knew he had a hard-on that was so rock-solid it could stop a speeding bus, but the fact that he didn't push it made her love him even more. She was bone-weary and hadn't been sleeping because she was worried about where he was. Now he was beside her and she could settle down and drift away in peace. If only men understood how vulnerable women felt when they were heavily pregnant, especially when it wasn't the blooming and exciting kind of pregnancy the first few had been. This one was bad enough to make sure this child would be the last. She had no intention of going through all this again.

'Night, darlin'. Sleep well.'

Lil smiled in the darkness at his soft words; now that he was beside her, that was exactly what she was going to do.

Pat was thinking about a little redhead who had been giving him the come-on for a while now. He needed to slake his urge and she was just the girl to do it.

'Babe, I might be late again tomorrow night, OK?'

Lil was half-asleep. 'What about the party, I thought we would start sorting that out?'

Patrick tutted at her and Lil realised she had annoyed him with her domestic chat. But it was her son's tenth birthday and she wanted it marked properly.

'Who are you fucking tutting at?'

She was wide awake now and Patrick could have kicked himself. He felt guilty enough as it was because he was already planning what he was going to do to the redhead.

'I wasn't tutting. I'm tired, that's all.' He was trying to sound hurt to stop any kind of argument because now he really was dog-tired and his Lil could row for England when the fancy took her.

'I want you to help me make the boy's day a bit special, Pat. If that's too much for you, then you let me know and, as per usual, I will do it on me own.' She was steaming now; she knew that he was wrong-footed and she was making the most of it. The sleep had left her faster than a bank robber in Barclays Bank.

'Look, Lil, for fuck sakes…'

She punched him none too gently in the shoulder. 'No, you look, Patrick. I spend my days here with the kids while you swan around being the big fucking I am. And I want your eldest son's tenth birthday to be something to remember all his life. I never had one party, not fucking one, and you were all for it until tonight. Well, fuck you. If you have more important things to do, then do them.'

She lay back down. Her breathing was heavy and his conscience was even heavier. He was wide awake now and she knew it.

'Please, Lil. I was just tired, that's all. You can do what you like for the boy; you know I'm useless at all that party stuff…'

Lil leant up on her elbow and he could see her in the dim light from the lamppost outside their window. She was stunning in her anger; when she defended her kids she was like an Amazon to him. But at this moment in time she was being a pain in the fucking ring. He forced a smile as he said, with as much aplomb as he could muster, 'You know the shit I have had to deal with this week…'

She turned away from him and sighed heavily; a calculated sigh that she knew would make him feel guiltier than ever. She knew what he was up to when he wasn't with her and tonight she didn't even care about that any more. If someone else was giving him his due, then good luck to them. At this moment in time all she wanted was a good night's sleep and for her son's party to go off with a bang. Anything else was not on her radar. He was beneath her notice but she was not going to let him off without a fight.

'Fuck you. Do you know what my life is like, Pat? Backache, a weak bladder and four kids who can't fucking sleep through the night without a bastard drama. On top of that, I have a husband who stays out all night on a regular basis and I am expected to believe that it's work even though I worked the clubs with him and I know the score better than he does. I just asked you a perfectly simple question, that is all. I wanted to know about our son's birthday, but I forgot that we ain't interesting enough for you any more, are we? Oh no, you are more interested in what you get up to, night after fucking night, while I stagnate here like a fucking pet monkey!'

Patrick would not have even attempted to interrupt or argue with her until she brought up about the clubs and now he was as angry as she was. Guilt was eating at him and he was determined to throw her off the scent. Attack was the best form of defence; his old man had proved the truth of that one.

'What are you trying to insinuate, Lil? That I am dipping my wick elsewhere?' It was the wrong thing to say and he knew it even as he was saying it.

She was out of the bed with the lamp on quicker than a pimp in a power cut.

'You said that, not me. What's the matter, your conscience playing you up, is it? I am here day in and day out with four kids and another one cooking inside me and you are like a fucking single bloke. You waltz in and out of your children's lives like a fucking ghost. All I ask is that you be here for one bastard night to sort out your son's birthday and you act like I am trying to pin you down for a court date. Well, fuck you, I will do it meself, as I do everything by meself lately.'

In the lamplight she looked demonic and Patrick was sorry that the night had deteriorated into this. But he was also wondering if this was a good opportunity to go on the trot and hunt down his redhead. Lil was getting him going again; her anger made him want her all the more. He knew she had every right to confront him. He had been out a lot lately and he could have come home except he had been enjoying himself, but he had been sorting out a lot of aggravation too. Her condition made her stroppy for the slightest reason and, not for the first time, he was going to exploit that. Looking at her now though, like a woman demented, he saw his chance. Climbing out of bed, Patrick started to get himself dressed. He was all subdued anger and righteous dignity. Every action was exaggerated and overdone.

It was an act and they both knew it. Patrick was wide awake and he had an itch that had to be scratched and his wife had just given him the perfect excuse to leave the house and get it scratched thoroughly by a little redhead with a pretty mouth.

'What do you think you are doing?'

It was a question she knew he had no intention of answering with any kind of truthfulness.

He sneered at her instead.

'What does it look like, Lil? You're the expert, you tell me.'

He pulled on his socks and, slipping his feet into his shoes, he carried on in the same sarcastic tone.

'I am going back out because it is obvious to me that you ain't going to let me sleep tonight so I might as well be out on the fucking town. I might as well give you something to moan about.'

Lil was nearly in tears, not because she was upset, but because her anger was overwhelming her.

'You are going to walk out because I asked you about your son's birthday and you think that is reason enough to go to your whore?'

Patrick's anger abated at her words. 'What whore? I ain't got a bird, Lil, not a real one, and you know that. I take a flier now and again, but that is it.'

He walked around the bed half dressed, running his hands through his hair in consternation, and, pulling her into his arms, said softly, 'You are one fucking awkward bastard, Lil, when you are cooking a chavvy. I am tired of this. You know what has been happening lately with the Williams brothers.'

He was looking into her eyes and his sensible head was telling him to stay home and make her happy, but his cock and his newfound energy were telling him to go out and have a good fuck. Get all the tension out of his body that only a faceless, uncomplicated fuck could do for a man.

Women didn't understand men and strange: it was nothing personal, it was about shagging, that was all. They were there for the taking, and you took. Simple as that; it wasn't rocket science. With strange you just did it. You didn't worry about them enjoying it too much and you didn't have to be nice to them before or after, though he was; you just bought them a few drinks and had a laugh. If you saw them again you smiled and that was just about the extent of the relationship. If they had delusions of grandeur, you put them in their place with a few choice words and a gentle hand on their backs as you walked them out the door. Now Patrick had the scent of strange in his nostrils and his wife was making him feel like a fucking intruder in his own home: a perfect recipe for him to justify going back out and not feeling too much remorse for his philandering.

'Look, Lil. Of course I want the boy to have a great day but, no matter what I say, you will decide it all in the end anyway. You want a row and I ain't going to let you have one.'

Lily knew exactly what he was trying to do and the knowledge depressed her. She could indeed start a row in an empty house, he was right about that much. But she was right about him and his other life as well. He called them fliers, she called them the reason she couldn't sleep.

'Get back into bed.'

She allowed him to tuck her in, fighting the urge to cry. She ached all over and she was tired and irritable. The twins would be up at six and she would have to be up with them no matter what she felt like. This was the edge he always had over her. She wondered what he would do if she fucked off one night and left him there wondering where she was, who she was with and when she would be back. That would never happen though, and they both knew it.

'Get a bit of sleep, Lil, you need it. I am only making you upset by being here and neither of us want that, do we?'

As Lil lay back against the pillows once more, she was amazed to see her husband finish dressing himself. She watched as he checked his pockets for his wallet and keys and then, kissing her lightly, he left the room, closing the door quietly behind him. She stretched out in the bed then and the sleep that had eluded her finally overcame her; this was a milestone in their marriage and she knew it. For the first time ever, she was glad he was gone from her. She knew he had come home the conquering hero and she had pissed all over the fireworks. The knowledge saddened her.

Chapter Nine

'What are you doing, boy?'

Pat Junior grinned as he poured the tea out and he basked in his mother's pretend annoyance. He loved it when she acted like he was still too young to do things for himself or for the others.

'Making the breakfast, Mum. Sit down and have a rest.'

Lil laughed happily. 'Have a rest, I only just got up!'

Since his birthday invitations had gone out and his cake had been ordered, Patrick Junior had been like a dog with six lampposts. He was a good kid anyway; he would go to the ends of the earth for her or his sisters and brother but, since the party had been organised and authenticated with hand written invitations, he had been like something from a Hollywood film. He could not do enough for her. Her contretemps with his father had, as always, blown over. She blamed herself for it because she should have had the sense to keep her trap shut and her opinions to herself. She knew that her husband had more temptation before him than most men, and she knew that now and again, he was going to succumb. What he didn't need was her giving him the green light by nagging him out of the door.

She was sipping her tea and nibbling on the toast her son had made her, when she saw Lance's face. It was bruised and scratched. 'What's wrong with your face, mate?'

Lance shrugged. His deep-blue eyes were, as always, devoid of any real emotion; at least that was how they looked to her. She hated herself for thinking it.

Pat stood behind his chair and she realised that his eyes were exactly the same as his brother's, except that she enjoyed looking into her older son's eyes.

'He had a fight at school, Mum.'

Lil sighed. Her frustration at her youngest son's bored demeanour was putting her on edge.

'What are you, Pat? His fucking parrot? Let him answer for himself. He ain't deaf, is he?'

She was sorry for her words and her anger immediately; Pat Junior was crushed by what she had said and the way she had said it. He had always been the buffer between her and his brother and she loved that about him. She felt the usual pang of guilt about her reactions to her younger son and prayed once more that she might find it in her heart to love him like she did all the others. She played the part of the doting mother so well that she believed it herself at times. But seeing Lance bruised and scratched made her feel guiltier than ever because she had not noticed it the night before.

Pat Junior stood behind his brother with one hand on his shoulder, and the other hand shielding eyes that were filled with tears. His head sank on to his chest and Lil knew he was trying not to break down in front of his siblings. She pulled him into her arms.

'I'm sorry, darling. You know I ain't myself lately. You are such a good boy, Pat, and I depend on you, which is wrong.' He hugged her tightly and she felt the solidness of his body; he was becoming a young man. Although Lance was bigger and heavier, he didn't have the tight muscles of Patrick Junior. Lance looked like the older brother but he didn't have Pat's sense or intellect.

'Now, Lance, come here.'

Lil held out her free arm to her second son and felt his hesitation before he moved towards her. She hugged them both to her tightly and Lance squeezed her back as if his life depended on it.

'So, who hurt you, Lance? Tell me.'

He stepped back from her and shrugged like he always did when questioned about anything he was the cause of.

'It wasn't his fault, Mum. It was the bigger lads; they pick on him because of his size.'

Lil held up her hand to silence Pat Junior. He was always trying to keep the peace but she knew that Lance was the one causing fights; it was in his nature and the school had just about had enough of him. Lance was on his last warning, and he knew it.

'Who were you fighting, Lance? Tell me and I'll let it go. But if you lie to me, I'll be angry. Now, answer me truthfully. Were you fighting again?'

He nodded and she sighed. It was pointless going on about it; he never listened to her anyway.

'Have I got to go to the school?'

Patrick Junior shook his head. 'It was outside of school, Mum, on our way home. Honest, it's all sorted, really.'

Lil nodded and lit another cigarette. As long as she wasn't going to be dragged up to the school she didn't really care.

Pat Junior was subdued now and she wished she had left it. After all, Pat had always looked out for his brother and that was never going to change. She worried that Lance's big mouth and knack of picking fights would one day land his older brother in trouble that he couldn't handle. So far he had bailed him out regularly and with the minimum of fuss, but she knew that as they got older it would not be so easy for him. Patrick could call on a lot of friends if he needed to, but Lance didn't make friends; he only had Patrick. She instinctively knew that in the years to come, Pat Junior would still be clearing up after his little brother. Lance depended on him too much and she blamed herself for that.

She smiled at the boys then, to show she was over it all, and they smiled back.

It occurred to Pat that his mother had not attempted to dress his brother's wounds like other mothers would have done and, as always, he felt the burden of Lance falling on to his shoulders.

Dave was sitting in his mother's house waiting for Bernie to bring Dennis back from the hospital. He was still bad, by all accounts, but he was better than anyone had expected him to be. Dave had left him there for three weeks without once going to see him. At first he had left it because he was so upset. Then he had left it too long to go without having to explain his absence. Now though, he had to face him and sort this thing out once and for all. Bernie would be here with him any minute and he had made sure that they would be alone.

He was nervous, but he didn't regret what he had done any more. It had been on the cards, the pressure had got to them all and he had blown, simple as that. Dennis was such a handful he could start a fight in a monastery. It had been inevitable they would come head to head at some point.

Dave glanced around his mother's lounge: the Yorkstone fireplace and shagpile carpet were stained and dilapidated and he was once more reminded of the money they had spunked up without a second's thought. As Pat had once pointed out, he had helped them make it and he was not obliged to tell them how to spend it. But he had tried. He had warned Dave about the way he was spending, had told him that until you line your pockets properly, keep your money in your pockets. Never let anyone know what you've got, had been another one of his favourite sayings; once people were aware that they knew too much about you, they wouldn't be comfortable with you ever again.

How true those words had been, and how Dave wished he could turn back the clock. Hindsight was a wonderful thing. That was another of Brodie's sayings that he wished he had listened to.

Pat had more or less told him that he was still on the firm but not in the capacity he had been before. Now he was on the payroll, on a wage, and he knew he had to swallow that. The fact he had even contemplated trying to force his way into Patrick's and Spider's business arrangement was enough to see him six-feet under so he was more than aware that he had been given a second chance.

He was not going to blow that. At least he had learned that valuable lesson and he had learned it well. Now he had to talk his brother down, and he was not relishing that at all.

Dave lit a cigarette and pulled on it for long moments, breathing the smoke deep into his lungs. The shaking of his hands was evident, even to him, and he willed himself to relax, but he had no idea what Dennis was going to be like when he walked through the door. With Dennis, the unexpected was the norm.

He heard a car pull up and stopped himself from leaping out of the chair and looking out of the window. He wanted Dennis to see him calm and controlled; it was important that he took the lead in the conversation and tried to salvage not only his brother's love and friendship, but also his position as head of the family. Dennis was strong enough to take that from him and he knew that better than anyone.

Vince had not forgotten, although he had forgiven. Dave had apologised profusely to him more than once and he was also on a promise to Patrick and Spider to keep Dennis on the straight and narrow for the foreseeable future. This first meeting was important inasmuch as he had to make Dennis understand that he was living on borrowed time until he could prove that he was not going to try to muscle in on anyone else's business.

He was aware that Dennis had not spoken to the police, who had questioned him in a perfunctory manner. Like him, they felt he had got his comeuppance at last and they would have known exactly what had gone down. They would have visited him because they had to, not because they wanted to solve any kind of crime. Dennis was hated by everyone in his orbit in one way or another.

Dennis had been the driving force behind every failed deal they had invested in, he had been the instigator, the front man, and he had been the one who had blamed everyone else around him when it had all gone tits up. Everyone, that is, except himself. He had been the same all his life; everything was always someone else's fault and he had always got away with it.

All their big dreams and it had come down to this. They were skint, humiliated and back where they started; on a weekly wage and having to prove themselves worthy of future advancement. His younger brothers had been cleaned out financially and he knew he should have put a stop to it long before it had got this far. Dave knew they had placed their trust in him and he was aware that they knew Dennis had been allowed to call the shots and that he had more or less taken over the family business and finances. And he had allowed it all to happen. He had listened to his brother's big talk and believed him when he insisted that they were shrewd enough and respected enough to overlook Brodie's and Spider's involvement in the drugs trade.

He could only put it down to madness on his part. He had no excuse for his behaviour except greed. If it was anyone else in this position he would have found it laughable; somehow he didn't find any of this amusing in the least. Especially since he could hear Dennis cursing and shouting as he got out of the car and limped slowly up the gravel path.

This was, without a doubt, the hardest thing Dave had ever had to do, and he had done some harsh things in his time.

Dennis came into the room and, even though he had lost weight in the hospital, he was still larger than the average Williams brother. His face was harder than Dave remembered and his shaved head showed the scars where the scalp had been sewn back together. Dennis looked like someone who had been in a plane crash and Dave had to remind himself that he had inflicted all the damage: the deep head wounds and the swollen bruises around his eyes and face.

And the worst thing of all was that, if he was really honest with himself, he had enjoyed every second of it. In a strange way, he wished that he had finished the job; it would have made his life a lot easier. His nervousness had suddenly gone and he looked at his brother with a rueful grin and said quietly, 'All right, bruv?'

Patrick was in his club, it was early evening and the girls were getting ready for the night's excitement. They were like a flock of chattering birds, their heavy make-up and skimpy clothes belying the stormy weather outside.

Patrick Brodie loved the West End when the days started to draw in. The tourists were long gone and even though the takings dropped off, he loved the feel of the real Soho. On nights like tonight he loved the clubs; when the girls were getting on with each other and not fighting over the least little thing. This club was the biggest of them all and he had bought it for a song, taking it as payment for a large gambling debt incurred by a man called Pierre Lamboutin. The French name had been an alias. Why he had chosen such a mouthful Patrick had no idea; aliases were supposed to be plain and dowdy, not something that drew attention to the person involved. But as Pierre was now as dead as a dodo and the club was his and, unofficially, the best earner in Soho, Patrick didn't give a fuck. Keeping on top of the game was no mean feat, considering all the competition that was opening up around him. But he had taken Lil's advice and as he treated the girls relatively well they were loyal brasses and he knew they made a point of not tucking anyone up on the premises.

The club was situated in Frith Street, busy enough for passing trade, but not so busy it attracted the walkabouts, otherwise known as the weekend warriors or window shoppers. Patrick only wanted clients who could spend a few quid and would not tear the arse out of one drink while they watched the strippers all night and felt up a hostess in between acts. He made the men pay a stiff membership fee on the door, guaranteed to separate the men from the boys. It also guaranteed the punters a modicum of respectability; it was a real club with real membership and their credit cards said as much, if their wives got their hands on them. Lord's Gentlemen's Club was a byword in the West End and Patrick was proud of its reputation and glamorous decor. It was about as prestigious as a girlie club could be.

As Patrick sipped a brandy at the bar he saw one of the new girls walk into the foyer. She was a stunner: tall and slim with long shapely legs. But it was her hair that set her apart from the other girls. It was a deep, natural auburn and, hanging down her back, it was thick and glossy like something from a shampoo advert on TV She smiled at him and he frowned. The only flaw was her teeth; they were crooked at the front and even though they were white, it marred the illusion of perfection. She had pale-blue eyes and heavily arched eyebrows that made her look like a film star. Patrick also happened to know that she could drink like a sailor and fuck like a train.

For the first time in years, Patrick was seeing someone on a regular basis and he knew that he was dicing with death because Lil might swallow a flier every now and then, but an actual bird would cause ructions. She would walk, he knew that. She would never allow him to disrespect her with a serious bird, a contender to her throne. Like most women, her biggest fear would be a child arriving, a son or daughter of his that would also be related to her own brood. It was unthinkable and he saw her point of view.

Every time he saw Laura Doyle he told himself it would be the last time and then he found himself making arrangements to see her again. The thing was, she had no real interest in him and he knew that; he was like a punter to her. Why he found her so fascinating he had no idea, but he did. He had even put her up in one of his better flats so he could have her whenever the fancy took him, secure in the knowledge that she would not have any other men there.

Laura was nineteen years old and she was a working girl through choice. She liked the night life, she liked the money and she had no qualms about sleeping with even the ugliest man for a fixed fee. The life suited her down to the ground and she saw Brodie as a step up, if only for a short while. He would tire of her eventually, she was sure, but until then she would milk him for everything she could get. She had a certain cachet with the other girls because of the relationship and she used it to further her own ends. For example, she made sure the head girl only gave her monied men and she also made sure that she was given her due. In fact, some of the girls had decided that she was stronging it a bit and she was not averse to letting them think that.

Patrick Brodie could be her passport to riches if she used her loaf and she was quite happy to use him for her own ends. If she could keep him interested, she could keep herself on the top rung and that was important to her.

For some reason she interested him and she had a feeling it was her complete lack of interest in him as anything other than a fuck. Her coolness intrigued him and she was glad about that. She did enjoy the sex with him; he was expert at it and she was an expert in making men feel like they were King of the Kip.

He passed her a small package and she smiled again. He always slipped her a wrap of speed, knowing that it was the staple for the girls who worked the clubs. It was always good gear, better than she could ever score on the street.

As they chatted he saw Spider and Cain going up to his office and he followed them a few minutes later, telling Laura that he would see her later that night. This was Patrick's way of telling her not to go case with any of her punters. He didn't mind that she slept with other men, it was her job after all. He was not about to be her second dick of the night though. He liked his fanny neat, tidy, tight and clean as a whistle. The latter being the main criterion as far as he was concerned.

He watched her as she sashayed to the meat seats and then he slipped upstairs to his meeting. His face was grim now and his demeanour that of a man expecting big trouble, and expecting it sooner rather than later.

Trevor Renton was a gambler, and he was one of a very rare breed; he made a good living from it. Whether it was cards, the horses or the dogs, he made a decent living for himself. He lost of course: horses were unpredictable and cards were dealt at random; you could only play the hand that was given to you. Trevor Renton could bluff though. He had once taken a massive pot on a pair of twos, unnerving his opponent by raising him larger and larger amounts and with his quiet confidence in what was, in effect, a crap hand. Lessons had been learned and he had made his reputation overnight. When he sat at a table for a game he was treated like visiting royalty and, if he lost, he lost with good grace and paid up what he owed without a murmur.

Tonight he was in a big game and he was very excited although his face betrayed nothing of his emotions. He had already had a couple of wins on the horses that afternoon and he was in the mood for a nice long night of poker. He loved the game, loved the feel of beating the odds and he loved the company of like-minded men. He also got a kick out of hearing the stories of other big games, even though he had heard them a hundred times before, and was often a character in the stories himself.

As Trevor settled himself into a chair, he took out his cigars, his car keys and his wallet; he had a marker in there for fifty grand owed him by the evening's hosts. Placing them all by his drink, he then removed his jacket, placed it carefully on a nearby sofa, loosened his tie and rolled up his shirtsleeves. He knew that as a regular winner he had to make sure that no one could ever accuse him of cheating, whether that was to his face or, worse, behind his back.

Some people were bad losers, especially when they bet with money they didn't really have. He could get credit anywhere; he was known for paying off his debts within hours of incurring them. Other men were not so sensible and tried to win back money they didn't have any more. They tried to recoup one loss by gambling on with borrowed money, money that would be repaid no matter what the circumstances. He watched them sweating with fear, drinking to calm their nerves, the alcohol that was supplied free of charge making their judgement worthless so that they started signing IOUs all over the place; trying to win back their lives and their family's lives. Then, at the end of the night, he saw their faces as the realisation finally dawned on them that they had just lost everything they possessed. Everything they had worked for gone in a few hours.

Somewhere, a wife and children were unaware that life as they knew it was over, that they would soon be caught up in a world of debt collectors and midnight visitors. A nightmare of such enormity that the reverberations would be felt for years. People were not aware that gambling debts did not, by law, have to be paid. They were a gentlemen's agreement, like a handshake. That was why the collection was usually guaranteed only with the help of violence and intimidation. The men who gambled away their lives were in fact putting themselves in a situation they could never escape from. The debts would be paid, it was as simple as that. The money was given with a smile and recouped with a baseball bat.

Trevor had seen it so many times and it depressed him that these men didn't have any self-control or any self-respect. At forty-eight years old he had been around the tables for over thirty years and he was still unscathed. There was not a scar on him and he had never been in a fight over cards or bets. Trevor was a gentleman and he knew his name was enough to get him into any game he wanted. He also knew that the younger men sought him out to play against him, hoping to get themselves a reputation as having beaten him. If that happened, and it was very rare, he shook their hands and gave them pointers and advice, making them friends for life. He had no problem with winners, it was a game of chance after all. Anyone could win and that's what made every night so exciting for him. As he sat nursing his ginger ale and waiting for the other players to arrive and get settled in, he was more than ready for the night's play.

'He is already causing fucking ructions and he's only been out of the hospital for a few days.'

Cain's voice was heavy with malice and Patrick listened quietly as he always did. He had found many years before that if you kept very quiet people filled in the silences themselves, offering more information than they had originally intended to give. It was a habit now and one he was glad he had cultivated.

'What has he done this time?'

While in hospital Dennis had attacked a doctor who was on his rounds and a porter who had not brought him the Scotch he had ordered. He had been as obnoxious as he always was and now he was out and about and determined to cause a ruckus. Dennis was making sure that people remembered just what he was capable of. Even though he was a laughing stock in some quarters, Brodie knew it would still be a brave man who had the nerve to laugh in his face.

'He has been round and collected rents that were already ours. It seems that Dave hasn't explained the new scheme of things to him and he still seems to think that he has some kind of fucking stranglehold over us lot. I have told my boys to go and request the money nicely If he tips them bollocks then they are to slice him and dice him as they see fit.'

Spider's voice was cold and brooked no argument. Well, he certainly wasn't going to get one from him. Dennis had been shouting his mouth off as usual; Patrick had been advised as to what Dennis had said about him, and it had not been what he would call complimentary. It was only a matter of time before someone shut him up permanently, so Patrick had decided to sit back and let someone else do any dirty work that was required. He knew that, in reality, Spider and Cain wanted his permission to out Dennis Williams and he was happy to oblige.

'Fair enough, what can I say? He is a cunt to himself.'

Spider and Cain relaxed at Brodie's answer, it was what they had been hoping to hear. They knew that Dave was still part of Brodie's firm and that was fair enough, unless it encroached on them of course.

Patrick sipped at his drink and when the atmosphere was warmer, he said jovially, 'Don't forget my boy's party. Bring the kids and everyone is welcome.'

'Fucking hell, Pat. Ten, don't the time go fast?'

Patrick nodded sagely. 'Wish I was ten again and knew what I know now, don't you?'

Spider laughed, his huge head going back on to his shoulders and reminding Patrick just how strong he was in all ways.

'When I was ten I had just started nicking fucking motors with me cousin Delroy. You remember him, Pat, he was shot in Kingston about three years ago. He finally went back to Jamaica and got wasted over a fucking bird.'

Spider shook his head in abject disbelief. 'A fucking bird. Only Del could die over a bit of pussy.'

He looked at Cain and said with pride and amusement in his voice, 'He could sniff out pussy like a fucking bloodhound and it was always sweet, at least that was what he said anyway.'

'He never got shot. He wore his cock out, Spider, and died of exhaustion. He got a hard-on looking at Fanny Craddock; he would trump anything. We used to have to hide our grannies if he was coming round.'

Cain and Spider were roaring with laughter, the earlier atmosphere was gone now, and they were all boys together once more.

Cain took a large gulp of his drink and, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he said craftily, 'You can talk, Pat. What is this I hear about you and a certain flat-chested redhead? Love is it?'

Patrick Brodie paled in front of the two men's eyes and the shock on his face was almost comical.

Cain realised immediately that he had said the wrong thing. Spider was looking at him with undisguised anger and Patrick was, for the first time ever, lost for words. Cain had just made himself look like a gossiping old woman, had alerted Brodie to the fact that he was being talked about and his name was being coupled with this girl, whoever she was. Brodie was a family man and very protective of his wife and his children, everyone knew that.

Spider replenished their glasses while Patrick busied himself lighting a cigarette and gathering his thoughts.

Cain spread his arms out in supplication. 'I was only joking, Pat. I didn't mean to cause offence.'

Cain was remembering the stories he had heard about this man: the torture of people who tried to thwart him and the torture machinery he kept in a warehouse in Silvertown. Spider had said that he'd seen Patrick electrocute naked men, hard men, without blinking an eye. He'd heard them begging him as they smelt their own skin burning and he had watched as the current had marauded through their bodies and caused them to be thrown a foot in the air, their screams eventually muffled by the quick-setting cement Patrick had forced into their throats once he had heard enough to satisfy his curiosity. No one ever crossed him twice. That was why Dave was so terrified about Dennis and his loose-cannon status and this was why Cain wished he had kept his big mouth shut.

Patrick was an anomaly; he was quiet, he was devious and no one ever knew what he was thinking or what he would do next. He went to Mass with his children, he took Communion every week and he had never had a rep as a womaniser; womanisers always ended up shitting on their own doorsteps, that was a phrase Patrick Brodie had used over and over again. He was right as well, Cain and Spider knew that. In the end, womanisers destroyed their families, had to look for a new home, had to deal with the resentment from children and relatives, and ended up in the same position they had been in at the beginning. Another, younger, wife and kids the same age as their grandchildren, and when the novelty wore off they were always out on the prowl once more. Patrick Brodie had no time for those men and the devastation they wreaked because they had no family loyalty, no respect for their wives, the mothers of their children, or the children they had created with those wives.

The stories about him were whispered, all rumour and innuendo; no one could ever place him at the scene of any crime and no one ever would.

It was that simple.

Now Cain had opened his mouth and given Patrick Brodie something to think about; the girl was a liability and Cain had pointed that out to him.

'Relax, son, you just did me a favour. Is it big talk or just rumours at the moment? More to the point, who told you?'

Spider could hear the underlying threat in Patrick's voice and he wanted to launch his brother into outer space for his careless talk.

This was Patrick all over; he was fastidious in his ways and he was almost a prude where his sex life was concerned. But Spider knew that his biggest fear was one of the blokes in their employ telling his wife or girlfriend about the redhead and the news then echoing back to Lil. She was everything to him and he would rather die a thousand deaths than have her hurt in any way, shape or form.

The fact that he was being talked about because of Laura was a worry, but he was also aware that Dennis's mother was a friend of Annie's and Annie would give ten years of her life for a piece of information like this.

'Look, Pat, it was me who opened me trap. I saw you with the girl a few times and it's not like you, is it? You are usually beyond reproach and Cain just got carried away, that's all. You know, joking about Delroy, it was just guys together. We would never talk about it outside this room.'

Patrick grinned then and Cain saw the coldness in his eyes that until then he had only heard about. He finally saw the Patrick Brodie he had only ever heard about and Cain was aware that he would never, ever like to incur the wrath of the man sitting so relaxed and quiet in the chair before him.

'I understand that, Spider. I am a cunt. I just need to know if it is common knowledge, that's all. If anyone else is talking about me, about my fucking private life.'

The sentence ended on a shout and Patrick was out of the chair and across the room in seconds. Cain instinctively put his hands up to cover his face, expecting to be attacked.

Instead, Patrick was at the drinks cabinet and his whole demeanour changed in seconds as he laughed jovially, saying, 'Fuck me, son. Relax and we can sort this out sooner rather than later.'

Spider was staring at his brother and Patrick was staring at him as well and for a few moments, Cain wasn't sure which one of them he was more wary of.

Laura let herself into the flat in Bloomsbury at about two-fifteen; she had been chauffeured there by a guy called Clinton, who was Patrick's driver on occasion. She was being her usual imperious self and Clinton had been told to stop and get her some cigarettes, which he had paid for and she had then insisted that he drive slowly because she was spilling the drink she had brought with her from the club.

Clinton had followed her into the block of flats and she could hear his quiet breathing from behind her as she tried to get her head around what she was seeing. She was wired, speeding out of her nut, but she was still sober enough to realise that there was something radically wrong, even though it was a few seconds before what exactly that was sunk in properly.

The flat was empty, not a piece of furniture or even a curtain remaining. It had been stripped bare of everything except for two cases and a woman's overnight bag, which were placed in the centre of the lounge.

Laura was still standing there, trying to get her bearings, when Clinton picked the bags up and walked back down the stairs with them.

'What the fuck is going on?' She was screaming at the retreating Clinton like a banshee because she was suddenly aware that her life in London was over. If Patrick Brodie wanted her gone, then she would have to go and that was that.

Laura was racking her brain for what she could have done wrong, what she might have done inadvertently to offend him and she could think of nothing. So she had thrown her weight about a bit, that was not something he would care about, surely? The tears were hot and salty on her creamy skin and she heard the sound of someone coming up the steps; she assumed it was Clinton coming back to remove her from the premises.

The place was devoid of anything to say she had ever been there and she wondered if this was the end of the line for her, was he going to make sure she disappeared? Was someone going to kill her? Terror rose up inside her like a wave and she felt the full force of her lifestyle as she understood what it could finally bring to her doorstep.

Clinton turned off the light and snapped, 'Come on, we ain't got all fucking night.'

Laura faced him, her tear-stained and terrified face making no impression on him at all.

'Please don't hurt me…' She sank down on to her knees, the fear making her legs weak and her heart beat so loud she could hear it in her ears like a drum.

Clinton was a small man; he had a face like an angel, as his mother was always pointing out, but he was slight in his build. He was just a driver and a gofer and that suited him down to the ground. Now though, he was finally understanding the buzz that fear could give to you. He was enjoying Laura's fear, enjoying seeing her brought down a peg or two. She was a whore with big expectations and Patrick had given him his orders and he would carry them out to the letter.

He stared at the girl for long moments as she sobbed and begged for her life.

'Please, Clinton, don't hurt me.'

Laura was imploring him with every ounce of strength she had left, the snot was running from her nose and she could feel it hanging in long strands as she scrambled across the floor to him, begging him, her lovely blue eyes wide with terror, not to harm her.

'Get up, you stupid bitch. You've got a long journey ahead of you tonight. You're the new suck and fuck girl for a friend of Patrick's in Manchester.'

Then he unzipped his trousers and said, with a northern accent, 'Get your laughing gear round that, lass.'

As Laura looked at him she saw the rest of her life in stunning detail and she realised just what she had let herself in for. The illusion of independence she had harboured all this time was just that, an illusion. She would be dependent on men like this for her daily bread until she was reduced to the streets and alleyways as age crept up on her, and her body gave out.

Clinton was choking her with his cock and she knew he was enjoying seeing her debased like this, was paying her back for all the slights, the sarcastic comments and the rudeness he had been forced to endure because she was fucking Patrick Brodie. His nails were digging into her scalp and he used her head for momentum, grabbing at the lovely hair that had always been her crowning glory. As he was coming in her mouth she heaved with the sudden taste of his salty, red-hot sperm.

Clinton left her lying on the floor, her tears silent now and he tidied himself up in seconds. Her bright-red lipstick was smothered all over his penis and his belly. He had enjoyed it so much that he could do it again and he decided that he would do it again. On the way to Manchester he would have her on her knees in the car park of a transport cafe. He was going to make the most of the opportunity he had been presented with. He knew she was out of his league and he wouldn't pay for it even if he had the money. So this was too good an opportunity to miss.

'But why? What have I done for Pat to do this to me?' Laura's voice was low, she was broken and he knew it. More to the point, she knew it.

'You've outlived your usefulness, darling, and now you have to go.'

He was laughing as he dragged her up off the floor by her hair and pushed her towards the front door, making her stumble with the force he used.

He locked up with her set of keys and placed them in his pocket. Then he walked her to the car, and, pushing her none too gently into the back, he slammed the door with a finality that told her she was off the radar, she was already yesterday's news.

Chapter Ten

Trevor Renton was tired, tired enough to leave the table, but he couldn't. He had seen off the two biggest wallets in the game with no trouble at all, more fool him, he realised now. The four other men at the table, none of whom were known to him, had played with seemingly unlimited amounts of money and were nothing more than ice-creams who he should have taken out of the game in the first two hands. They were nothing more than three mediocre players and a thieving ponce.

He had not bothered with them before because he had been too busy concentrating on the real gamers. But now he was convinced that they were on the scrounge, were after his pot; he had started with a fifty on tap and that had turned into a little over a hundred grand. He wondered if he was getting too trusting in his old age, but then again this had been a proper game. No one involved in the set-up had been suspect and he had been assured that the players were good for any debts incurred. Now though, he was not so sure. He had a shit-detector that was telling him that he was about to be scalped and there was not a thing he could do about it. He was a sitting duck and, ironically, this crowd of fucking morons held all the fucking cards.

Not that he would say any of that out loud, of course. He had far too much intelligence to accuse anyone of cheating at this table, not without the back-up of at least a fucking platoon of Vietnam veterans or a large crowd of serial killers. He was aware of the fact that this really wasn't his table in any way. It wasn't on his turf, for a start, and there was no one left that he knew or trusted as he had taken them out of the game. He was in a quandary of fucking Homeric proportions; he knew he was going to be had over, and worst of all, by a crowd of cunts he had seen as so worthless he had not even listened to their fucking names. He was far too well known and far too respected to have to worry about things like this.

He was backed by some of the biggest names in criminal history; he went into the massive games with their money on him as bets, that was how good he was. He had assumed that this lot he was left with were just the usual bystanders you got in a big game. All hoping to have a bit of luck and when they lost their few quid they'd sit back, swill the free booze and watch the real card players at work. And it was work to him and his ilk. This game should have been something these blokes would have wanted to tell their mates about, the big card game they were in. For once in their life they had sat with the best and that was usually enough for them. He had done this lot a fucking favour and a half, he had knocked out not just the daydreamers, but the real players as well. But no one, it seemed, was being encouraged to stay and watch the climax.

The other players had just been escorted out the door; he had come back from the toilet to see them leaving under duress. The alarm bells had started to ring then and he wondered what was to become of him this night. Players always stayed; they wanted to know where and more importantly with whom, their money would finally end up. It was the way you brought yourself down to earth after you left the table. Any addiction brought your dopamine levels up sky high, it was what made you stay there and play in the first place, it was also what kept you there afterwards. Just because you knew you had to leave the game didn't mean you couldn't enjoy it anyway. For most of the real players, watching a good game was the nearest thing to being back in your seat. For the addicted gamblers, not the real players like him and his colleagues, it was the dopamine their brains created that made them stay at the table when all they possessed was lost. It was the dopamine that kept them out all night and made them throw in car keys or their houses; that was what addiction was about.

For him and other professional card players it was about more than the thrill alone, it was about beating the odds and making a pile. It was about keeping your head when everyone around you was losing theirs. It was about winning, calmly and with dignity.

He had noticed the other players being ushered from the room but he had a poker face and no one knew that he was bothered or that he had sussed them out. He smiled a small, knowing smile that he had perfected many years before and he sat back in his seat cursing himself for his honesty and trust.

The man with the large belly and the crooked smile who, he suddenly realised, was scheduled to win all his money, was grinning and mugging with such an undisguised expression of glee that even Helen Keller would have sussed out that she was going to be ripped off.

The man waved him into his seat with a smile that made Trevor angrier than he had ever been in his life and said with barely disguised menace, 'I hope you ain't fucking off as well, Trev. We want a chance to win our money back, eh, guys?' The other three laughed as if he had just told the funniest joke in recorded history. It wasn't in Trevor's nature to cause trouble. He lost with aplomb, a certain cachet, he made sure of that. It was part of his reputation, why people didn't mind sitting in with him and why he was well past this kind of scam.

Trevor had never once questioned another player's tactics or agenda since he had been in the big league. He had never caused a scene of any kind or been the catalyst for anything even resembling trouble. But he was going to cause trouble after this little lot. He was going to cause fucking murders when and if he finally walked away from here. So he smiled and yawned, and he decided that he was going to have to lose gracefully and give them his marker. He had been around long enough to know when he was being shafted and he had been shafted royally by this shower of shite.

He was unable to leave the game, he knew, because these so-called players, who, incidentally, looked like a parody of Dean Martin and the rat pack, had more or less told him that if he went home now they would not be too thrilled. There was no actual spoken threat but then there wouldn't be, would there?

He would lose to them if that was what they wanted; the money was nothing to him, he only ever wanted the game. The game was all that mattered to him and for a few seconds he toyed with the idea of wiping them out completely. Playing them for all they were fucking worth. Fronting it out and wanking them off, but he knew he was playing for his life. Mister fucking Agreeable was going to take his poke one way or another. Only his calm exterior and a big loss would guarantee that he would walk out of this place in one piece.

'What do you want, Trevor? Anything you need you just tell me, OK?' The young man who was serving the drinks was a handsome and, suddenly seriously nervous, little fucker.

Trevor guessed, rightly, that he had only just sussed out the situation and was not happy about being witness to anything that might drag him into the world of violent retribution. He was eighteen, top whack, and he was so naive he probably thought Debbie Harry was a natural blonde. Collar and cuffs.

Trevor grinned and shook his head as if he was happy as a sandboy. The three gooners and the ponce all ordered large drinks and that in itself told Trevor that he was dealing with fucking amateurs. He wanted to scream out at the top of his voice, 'Have me over if you must, but don't fucking rub it in and make it so obvious. Have a bit of respect.'

Trevor was more gutted at the way they seemed to think he was such a cunt that they could just mug him off. He would have had more respect for them if they had just robbed him; an honest robbing would have been preferable to this barrage of insults and foolishness. They were making him feel like a prat. Any real card player worth their salt went off the drink once the real money was on the table for the simple reason you never knew what might be in it. Certain people got lairy when they were being wiped out. The Faces were the worst of them all; they honestly believed that you were scrumping their fucking wallets somehow.

Trevor had made a point of never playing Faces unless they had the proper in. He insisted on a guarantee that they were real players. Which meant, of course, that they were happy to lose their money. Most criminals, especially bank robbers, were not natural losers. It was the nature of that particular beast that they tended to take money, not give it away to some bloke with a smile and a better hand than they had. Some had even been known to come back later in the evening with a shotgun and a chip on their shoulder bigger than Mount fucking Rushmore demanding their money back, convinced they had been short-changed. You couldn't do a lot about that, you certainly didn't remind them that they had been in a proper game with serious gamblers, not playing poker in prison for fucking peanuts, nine times out of ten with people who had no intention of losing to them. Somehow, that conversation never seemed to come up.

No one accepted a drink. A real pro got up during a break and then watched the fucker being poured out. In his world the barman would have the fucking sense to open a new bottle in front of his face; it was accepted, expected and it stopped fights. He was being rolled by a herd of fucking imbeciles. Big imbeciles admittedly, but fucking drongos all the same. The real insult was that these fucking Keystone Cops thought he was buying into this fucking lunacy. Really believed that he had not cottoned on.

In all his years, Trevor had never, ever, been treated like this. Oh, he had seen the chancers and he had observed gooners in his time. When he had first come on the scene he had been offered fortunes to be one. He had refused; he wanted to win fair and square. Gooners were players who were ornaments until the final sting. There was never a gooner of course, in the singular, because a good card man would wipe them out in no time. Gooners worked together so that, like now, when he had knocked out the real players and the pot was a small fucking fortune, they would sit at the table and work together against him. He was expected to believe that they were better players than him, that his luck had gone on the trot faster than an ex-wife with a pools win and an ex-paratrooper for company. He was so insulted that he was determined to make these cunts work for the jackpot. Then he would congratulate them and leave with dignity and a fucking raging hard-on for all their arses. The bar boy winked at him and he wondered if, on top of everything else, they all thought he was a poofter.

'Not long till me party.' Pat Junior's voice was proud and filled with longing for the day to finally arrive.

Billy Boot, Pat's long-time friend and Lance's arch-enemy, was almost as excited as he was at the thought of the party. This was the party to end all parties as far as he was concerned and he was thrilled that Pat was going to be the lucky recipient of such a wondrous event. Everyone within earshot was straining to hear the conversation and all those invited had been bragging about it for ages, with the girls discussing their outfits at every opportunity. Lance kicked a football that had rolled near him back to the boys who were playing with it. He was good at sports and he kicked it with all his considerable strength, knowing that it would slam into one of the younger kids who were waiting patiently for its return.

He was spot on and the ball hit a seven-year-old lad on the side of his head. He was a hardy perennial though, who rubbed his ear furiously, forced away the tears that were filling his eyes and carried on with the game, even though his face was crumpling by the second with pain and cold.

'I bet that hurt him.' Lance was laughing at the boy's predicament.

'Course it hurt him. You meant it to. It's freezing today so that must have really stung.' Lance shrugged as if he had no idea what Billy was talking about before saying loudly, 'You're right, it is cold, ain't it? Hope my old coat is warm enough for you, Bootsie.'

The boys were in the school playground in their usual place by the school gates. The weather was icy cold, and their coats were buttoned up tightly against it. Patrick knew that they were better dressed than any of the others and he accepted that, appreciated it. He also understood why his mother passed their old clothes on to other kids in the school. It was her way of helping people out and it was accepted in their world.

Unlike Lance, he had never felt the urge to point that fact out. Now he could feel the heat of Billy's humiliation as if it was happening to himself.

Lance was sneering at Billy, taunting him as he always did and Billy Boot was not going to put up with much more of it. Lance had never understood when enough was enough; he always had to push everything and everyone to the extreme. He spent his whole life causing upset and hurting people without a thought for their feelings or their circumstances. They had both been to Billy's house and Pat knew that Lance had seen how hard up they were. Billy had six younger brothers and three older sisters and a father who was always in the pub. He battered Billy and his brothers regularly and, without a second's thought, Billy's sisters were also beaten, but generally only on a Friday or Saturday night when he came home from the pub looking for his wife. Even though he knew he wouldn't find his wife, and knowing exactly what she was up to, he would smack his daughters around instead.

Everyone knew, including her husband, that Billy's mother moonlighted weekends around King's Cross. She had to, someone had to pay the bills. Billy's father would come home drunk, kick up a stink and then rob her of whatever money she had. She would put a few bob in her bag and when he had taken that she would have a bath and tell the girls that, as always, the bulk of her earnings were with Lil Diamond. Patrick had been married to Lil for about a year when he heard one of the neighbours, a hard old bird who had buried her husband and three of her children during the Blitz, telling one of her cronies, 'You know who that is don't you? Lil Diamond's husband.' He had been amused by the fact that in the Irish community women were always known by their maiden names.

It was Lil's reputation as a Brodie wife and a respectable woman that kept Billy's father from demanding all his wife's money from her.

Though Billy's mother and her extracurricular activities were never talked about openly, everyone knew about them; the teachers, the police who came when she was being battered and even the little kids around and about. But because she was also a great friend of Pat's and Lance's mother, no one said a word about it to her face. It was a strange set up. You could whore in the streets in front of your home, as long as you were doing it for your kids and, even more importantly, your kids had to look as if you were flogging your arse for their benefit. If the kids were still running round with their arses hanging out of their trousers, and you were seen to be doing all right yourself, then, and only then, were you treated like an outcast. So, if you had half a brain you sorted the kids out. Feeding and clothing your children was paramount to these women; all they were and all they did was for their families. It was the most important thing you could ever do.

Those who had a husband who provided were revered. If your old man had gone on the trot, or was a useless ponce, you did the best you could; robbed him while he slept off the drink on pay night or, like the abandoned women, you moonlighted. Some of the women who were alone for a while eventually acquired lodgers, and these lodgers were treated with respect and would act the part for years. It was all about how things looked to the neighbours, not about how they actually were.

If your kids were taken away, you were finished. Go on the bash by all means; no one thought the worse of you for that. As no one signed on, the bash was considered almost respectable, whereas going on the Social was considered outrageous. Once you went to the Social Security you invited the government into your whole life.

And if, God forbid, you let your kids go into care, which, since the sixties, had become everyone's biggest fear, you were out. You were dragged out of your home by your hair, battered, spat on and left with no option but to do a runner. Now there was a new breed arriving in the flats and houses: young women with babies and no husband in the frame at all. Girls who lived off the Social and had no shame, like it was their right. The dole was supposed to be an interim measure till you got another job but now it seemed, with the seventies, it was a fucking lifestyle! It shocked and annoyed the women who had never claimed a bean even when they were on their uppers. Now, by all accounts, girls were getting pregnant just to procure for themselves council flats and a few quid off the State. These young hussies were shameless about it, and the older women were starting to be nervous because more than a few of these so-called unmarried mothers were daughters and nieces of people they knew.

The sixties were over, the seventies were more than halfway through, and these women who were scandalised were only young, yet most looked older than their husbands. It was a new age for them and, as they ran one woman out, another one arrived with a child and no wedding ring. They saw these girls have a child without a thought for the fellow involved and, in their hearts, they admired them for their independence and their guts, even while they blasted them for living off the taxpayers' money. Still, as long as they looked after their children, they were tolerated. If they didn't, they were taken to task like any of the others.

Billy and his siblings were more than aware of what their mother had to do when she went out of a weekend. Billy could not remember when or how he had found out about it, but he had seemed to know all his life. He hated his father and he loved his mother, although he loathed what she had to do to keep them clean, fed and with a roof over their heads.

Billy knew that his mother was respected for the way she kept her family and that Lil was great mates with her. This was how Billy came by Lance's old winter coat and other bits of his wardrobe.

Billy was sick of having to wear other people's clothes and sick of having to live with a drunken father and a whoring mother. One of his sisters was pregnant so she was going to be another one of those unmarried mothers, and he knew that once that was common knowledge, Lance would slaughter him for it.

'You can stick the coat up your arse…'

Billy's voice was heavy with shame and embarrassment. He forced the words out between his teeth and he felt so fucking full of hatred for himself and the whole world that Lance could feel it coming off him in waves. He was frightened of Billy for the first time ever; he knew that he was capable of hurting him this time.

Billy was clenching his fists ready to have a fight. He wanted a fight, he wanted to crack Lance's head open for every slight he had endured from him and for every fucking man his mum had serviced. He wanted to draw blood for every time his dad had beaten him or his brothers because he had pissed up all his money.

'Come on then, Lance. Let's have a straightener, shall we?'

Billy could feel a great black hate that was finally bubbling up to the surface. He could kill a man now, let alone a boy.

Pat Junior, as always, stepped in and tried to keep the peace.

'Fuck off, Lance. That was out of order.' He pushed his brother out of harm's way.

Lance grinned. 'It was a joke, Pat, that's all. And he is wearing me coat. So what. I don't give a toss; he's welcome to it.'

Billy was still white-faced and stiff with anger. He knew that Lance had meant for his words to be heard by all the other kids standing nearby and he also knew that he had achieved his objective. They were being stared at by the majority of their classmates. Billy knew that most of them were in the same boat as him; money was tight in their households too, but it was the principle of it. He knew Lance had wanted to show him up and he had achieved that. Billy wanted to rip Lance apart and he knew he was more than capable of doing just that, but he didn't want to fall out with Patrick because they were best mates. Lance, as usual, took advantage of that and now Billy was feeling the full force of Lance's beaming smile and his convincing act of being contrite. The black hate was gone now.

'You are going to have to develop a sense of humour at some point, Bill.'

Lance was smiling again, that even-toothed, amiable smile that made him look like an innocent. Billy didn't answer him or even acknowledge the smile. Instead, he turned his back on him and spoke to Pat, but the words were for Lance's benefit and they all knew that.

'Your party is going to be the biggest event of the year for us lot, everyone is talking about it and you deserve it. The whole fucking thing is amazing. Is it true you've got a proper disco?'

He knew it was true. He knew more about the arrangements than Lance; Patrick Junior had discussed it with him at length. And Pat understood Billy's desire to push Lance out of their little circle. He did it himself at times but it was hard because Lance, as much as he was a pain, was still his brother.

Over the last few months, Patrick Junior had experienced a growth spurt and now he was taller and broader than his younger sibling. He knew that this annoyed Lance who had always used his size to his advantage at every opportunity. They were both big for their ages and Pat was growing at what his mother jokingly called an alarming rate. He was head and shoulders above his classmates and he was also finally towering over Lance. This had done wonders for his self-respect as he knew his father was proud of his increasing size. He had always been able to batter Lance when it came to a fight but there had recently been a real shifting of positions between them. Lance had always looked the stronger of the two but now that was not so evident. Their father had even pointed it out to them both. He had told Lance that he was big-boned like his paternal grandfather whereas his older brother had the same solid build as himself.

Pat Junior was his father's double all right; even he could see that. He was proud to be so like the man he loved and adored and he was determined to be just like him in every way possible when he grew up.

'It's a party, a kids' party and you lot act like it's some kind of fucking big event.' Lance's voice was hard and the jealousy he was feeling was threatening to erupt. Pat Junior knew that Lance was finding it difficult to accept the fact that he was having a big party for his tenth birthday. Lance had always been jealous by nature and Patrick, who was untroubled by envy or greed, was unsure how to react to it most of the time. He knew that Lance would be having his own party when his tenth birthday came around but, like everything else, Lance wanted his to be first. Lance only saw Pat's party as something to top when his turn finally came. He was already planning his own party and thinking of ways to make sure it was ten times better than the party his brother was going to have.

Lance didn't understand that Pat's party would be merrier because all the people going actually liked his brother.

Lance didn't make friends easily, and Patrick Junior always looked out for him although he knew that Lance resented that.

Pat Junior understood how he felt to an extent; all his friends with younger brothers were in the same boat. Being the youngest was hard enough but Pat Junior knew that Lance was aware that his mother preferred him and that had to be hard to live with. Even he knew that his mum preferred him to Lance although she tried not to differentiate between them. But he also knew that Lance was the apple of Nanny Annie's eye and that she loved him enough for everyone.

But Lance was unhappy a lot of the time and Pat Junior was sorry about that. He wished he could make things better for him. Nanny Annie might be all over him like a rash but it was his mother poor Lance needed, and Pat Junior wished he could make that happen. His mum loved him, and he loved her, the twins were everyone's babies, even Lance was mad about them. But his mum only pretended that she loved Lance and it was awful to watch because she was actually fooling no one. Least of all, poor Lance who knew that all the pretence was for his benefit.

Billy was still waxing lyrical about the party when Father O'Donnell rang the bell that heralded the start of their school day.

Pat Junior and Billy walked in together and Lance, as always, hung back as if walking in with them was like admitting a defeat of some kind.

Mick Diamond was feeling rough. He was always telling people he had a cold coming on, but he didn't. The reason he was red-nosed and feverish was because he drank too much. He looked around the flat that Annie now lived in, thanks to her daughter's generosity, and wondered at the way life threw you a curve when you least expected it.

That Lil could have ended up like she had still amazed him and he wished he had been a proper father to her when he had the chance. Now he was at Annie's mercy and she still made him pay for every fucking slight or wound she felt he had inflicted on her during their marriage.

She was still his wife though and she permitted him access to her house and her body when the fancy took her. It didn't bother him; he could shag a fence with a few drinks inside his belly and, knowing him, he probably had at some point. He knew he had fucked some horrors in his time, drink did that to a man. Beer goggles they called it on the telly. He called them pub fucks but he never remembered until he was reminded of it by someone who had obviously not drunk as much as him. He took their word for it though, as he usually had a feeling that there might be a grain of truth somewhere. Some weren't bad either, it was a shame that he was so drunk they never registered. He only went back to their places because they had more drink, no other reason. He would go home with Larry Grayson if he had a drink for him.

The thought made him smile and Annie, as always, was quick to question him about it.

'What you got to laugh about?'

Mick smiled at her then.

'I was just thinking about those kids, Annie. That Lance is a case, ain't he?' He knew how to push her buttons and he pressed them to his own advantage on a daily basis.

'He is not happy about this party they are having for the boy. It's ridiculous spending all that money on a child.' Her voice was both disgusted and full of admiration at the same time.

She loved telling her cronies about the arrangements, knowing that it was the talk of everyone around and about. But she was also genuinely shocked that so much money was being spent on a ten-year-old.

Mick understood the reasoning, though he didn't say that to Annie, of course. Lil had never had a real birthday in her life until she married Brodie. Not even a card or an acknowledgement most years. He didn't blame himself for that; she was, after all, nothing to do with him. But now he wondered why Annie had not attempted to mark the day for her only child. He would not have allowed it if she had, but he was not about to admit that to himself or anyone else.

Now he guessed that Brodie, who had been dragged up himself, and Lil were making sure that their children had all the things that they hadn't. Pat Junior's tenth birthday was being treated like some kind of milestone in the boy's life. Mick was going to the party though, he was determined on that. He still pretended to people that everything between him and the Brodies was hunky-dory and he knew he had to show his face there to keep up the illusion of family.

Annie assured him that he was invited, along with her. She had cleared it with Lil by all accounts. He was interested to see what it would be like. The kids were nice enough, even he had to admit that. Especially those girls, the twins. They were as sweet as candy and, although he would never admit it, he loved the way they smiled at him on the rare occasions he saw them.

Lil had done all right for herself, he had to give her credit where credit was due. He admired her for the way she had pulled herself up in the world and for the way she had tamed a wild man like Brodie. He remembered now that when she had started developing he had made a point of catching her in various states of undress and had felt her up a few times. Mick stopped his mind going any further, he was not going to go there today.

Lil had developed enough of a body to attract any red-blooded male but he had not thought back then that she would have known how to use it and keep a man interested in her for as long as she had. Four kids and one on the way and Brodie still acted like she was his first girlfriend.

'Are you listening to me?'

Mick Diamond was brought back to the present by his wife's strident voice.

'Course I am!'

'Well, what do you think then? I heard that Dennis Williams was on the warpath again. He is a nutter, him.'

Mick nodded. 'True, Annie, very true.'

He watched her as she cooked him bacon and eggs. She was a good old stick was Annie, really. She was just a miserable bitch and he knew he had contributed to that over the years.

'How is Lil anyway?' Mick asked about her because he could not think of any other topic of conversation and he knew Annie was after a chat

Annie smiled. A rare smile that made the years drop from her and softened her face so that she looked almost beautiful.

'She ain't a bad girl really, Mick. There's plenty worse than my Lil.'

Mick was so flabbergasted at her words that he forgot to swallow and nearly choked himself in the process. As he coughed like a TB patient, Annie slapped his back for him and he was saved from saying anything that would have alerted his wife to the shock and absolute amazement her words had caused him.

Annie, though, was more than aware of the effect her words had had on her husband and she finished off the breakfast in silence.

She wasn't going to enlighten Mick about why she had changed her opinion of her daughter because he would only use it against her in some way. But the fact that Lil could still find it in her heart to make sure that her mother was solvent as she approached old age, despite her upbringing, had really affected her.

To know that someone cared about you was a new and wonderful feeling for Annie.

As Mick had battered her down and broken her spirit within months of their marriage, she had done the same thing to poor Lil, blaming her for the abortion that her own life had become.

Lance made up for a lot with her; she had seen that boy born and felt, for the first time in her life, what love could be. She had experienced the selfless love that a mother should feel for her children, though she had never felt it towards her own daughter.

When Lil had called her into the kitchen the day before and handed her the paperwork to her little flat, she had been speechless. Even more so because she knew that Lil would have had her work cut out convincing Patrick Brodie to give her a penny sweet, let alone the roof over her loaf of bread.

Lil had explained that it was in her name but that the solicitor had written up a contract that stated it was Annie's until her death and only then would it revert back to her daughter. This, she knew, was so that Mick Diamond didn't get a look in and she could understand that. He was capable of bumping her off if he thought he would get his mitts on a few quid.

When Annie arrived home she looked around her. For the first time in her life, she was secure, really secure, and she wondered at how lucky she was that her only child had her best interests at heart, despite everything. She had made herself a stiff drink and then she had found herself being bombarded with memories of every little thing she had done, or, if she was honest and more to the point, not done, for her daughter.

It was only now that she was finally understanding what other women had taken for granted. All you really had in the end was your kids. Rich, poor, beggar or king, the children you had were the only people who cared about you in the end.

The knowledge that she was set up for the rest of her life had also given Annie a confidence that she would never have thought she could possess.

Whatever else Annie might have thought about her daughter, she would always appreciate what she had done for her. Even more so because she had done it without any kind of fanfare whatsoever.

Mick Diamond watched the changing expressions on his wife's face and knew from long experience that something of moment had occurred. What that might be, he had no idea. He would have to bide his time and ferret it out of her gradually. He was a patient man, he could wait.

Whatever it was, it had to do with money. That was the only thing that brought a smile to this woman's face. Other than Lance, of course, but he didn't count.

Chapter Eleven

'No, fuck off. You are having a tin bath, I hope?'

Trevor didn't laugh as he didn't think it was actually expected of him. Pat Brodie's voice was high enough not just to sound surprised, but to also convey major disbelief.

'How much did they skank then?' Patrick was trying to keep his breathing normal and not let his anger get the better of him. When he was like this he was capable of anything and he needed to hear everything that had occurred so he would not go off half-cocked.

'Over a hundred grand and, have a guess what, I had to go and get the money for them. They knew I pay out quick and that is what they were banking on. I had to hand over my hard-earned poke to those fucking eejits without being able to say anything. If I had argued, they would have graved me without a second's thought.'

The fear was still in Trevor's voice and Patrick knew that he was obviously still feeling the terror that only that kind of threat could bring. Death threats were bad enough but when you knew it was not just a threat but a real possibility, it could really fuck up your day. Especially when you also had to undergo open-wallet surgery or the threats would materialise in seconds.

Patrick was itching to make amends; the fact that Trevor was not just a mate but under his protection was well-known. Trevor paid him a decent slice of wedge to make sure he could sit in any game and be safe and secure.

The cards were a hard game for people like Trevor. He was a one-off, a real player; he was the exception to the rule. Somehow, Trevor won more often than he lost. He was a nice bloke as well, a decent guy, in fact. Patrick had always liked him and, more to the point, respected his talent because he knew that only a few people were given such a gift. He had watched Trevor over the years and he could not express in words just how fucking amazing the man was with a deck of cards and a decent pot. But the bottom line was that Trevor was not a fighter. He was not a hard man and he didn't want to be. That was the whole idea of making a few quid, you didn't have to be anything. You bought the safety you required and you got what you paid for. To have Trevor here now, in a terrible state, telling him that he had been fleeced by three baboons and a nancy boy, was so outrageous that Patrick wanted to rip someone's head off just for the hell of it.

'Did you know them? Do you know where they drink? Anything that might tell us who was the brains behind it.'

Trevor nodded. 'The big one I recognised. It took me a while to suss it out but I've seen him with young Dave Williams. He's been in the casino a few times. I think he was nervous of me because I kept staring at him; he was getting right shirty.'

'Dave Williams?'

Patrick just stopped himself from saying, 'My Dave.'

Trevor nodded. 'I'm sure, Pat.'

Pat stood up and looked at Trevor for long moments, his eyes darkening with his growing anger. Then he suddenly said, 'The fucking two-faced cunt.'

Patrick's answer and the way it was delivered was the single most shocking thing that Trevor had ever heard. Patrick Brodie was known as a hard case but no one knew what he was really capable of.

Pat was sensible enough to keep the real villainy out of the mouths of locals. He knew that gossip was what put most people behind bars. Gossip usually had a grain of truth in it and it always amazed him when men discussed their skulduggery in public; it was like asking for a tug from the filth. Being well known was a very good reason to keep your trap shut because everything about you was discussed, exaggerated and believed by everyone around you. It was human nature and the only way to keep safe was to keep quiet.

Patrick had done some bastard things over the years and very few people knew about them. If they were ever discussed and the story made its way back to him, he would be able to pinpoint the culprit in seconds. The only way you could keep on top of the game was to fucking keep stum.

Dave was probably only the fall guy, it was obvious who the big man was. It was Dennis he should be going after. And not before time either. He had warned Dave what would happen if he stepped on his toes again and now it was time to dole out some retribution. He had swallowed because of Dave and the fact that he had always had time for him. Even after the last debacle he had tried not to go over the top.

Well, he was done with being nice and trying to honour a friendship that was well past its sell-by date. He was just about ready to cause serious damage and the recipient was going to be Dennis Williams. He was actually looking forward to it.

Jimmy Brick was a big lad and, like most big lads, he was used to people either trying to fight him or being convinced that he was going to hurt them. Although Jimmy could have a row when necessary, he much preferred not to, if he could avoid one.

Jimmy had a large head that was overlong, his chin was thick and angular and, coupled with his wide-spaced eyes, his protruding, thick eyebrows and his buzz cut, he was often called Frankenstein. Even his mum had mentioned the likeness on more than one occasion. The family joke was that when he had finally emerged from his poor mother, the size of his head, which had caused her such torment, was commented on by all the women helping with the delivery. His granny had apparently taken one look at the boy who had taken nearly forty-eight hours to come into the world and shrieked.

'For Christ's sake, shove the ugly bastard back in!'

The laughter this had always received was not so much hurtful any more, as it was expected. Jimmy was past caring; looks were never going to be his strong point, he had soon sussed that much out. And as he had seen his baby pictures, he was the first to admit that his granny had got a point.

He had been a very ugly child and adolescence had not made him any better. He had appalling acne and, coupled with his protruding brows and his loose bottom lip, he had settled down to a life of tranquillity. Jimmy had been his granny's favourite in the end and she had helped him come to terms with his looks by telling him that he had two choices: to hide away or to learn to accept the stares he got from people and remind himself that they couldn't help it. He was an ugly fucker and nothing was ever going to change that. Harsh as that was, he was glad of her and her common sense; he had learned to live with himself and he was more than aware that many so-called beauties would never achieve that. Good looks, his granny had always told him, were a curse. He had the chance to be loved for himself. No one had loved him yet, but he was confident that once he had cracked it and had a few quid, that would come.

Women were willing to overlook a lot for a nice house and an easy life. He just hoped the kids did not get his big head and cause whoever he married the same pain he had caused his poor mother. She was still going on about it now, all these years later.

Jimmy smiled at the thought. He had a nice easy temperament that stood him in good stead with the people who finally bothered to get to know him properly; his features made him look ferocious and stopped most overtures of friendship in their tracks.

Jimmy Brick was a really nice guy and he knew that better than anyone else. He was happy enough in his way and he enjoyed his life and enjoyed his job. As he often wondered, how many people could say that?

As Jimmy walked into Patrick Brodie's office, he was smiling. Pat grinned at the guy he genuinely liked and who he also felt so very sorry for. He was one ugly bastard and that was being honest.

'All right, mate?'

Patrick nodded and said nonchalantly, 'Sit down, mate. I have a proposition to put to you, Jimmy, me boy, and I want an answer soon as. OK?'

Jimmy nodded and, as he sat down, Patrick saw the way he hitched his trouser legs up so as not to crease them too much; he was so fastidious in his dress that it was almost sad to watch him. As Lil had once pointed out, Jimmy looked like the Missing Link. At the time, Pat had laughed, but the more he looked at the lad, the more he saw what she meant. Jimmy Brick was like a huge ape stuffed into an expensive suit. He was a lovely bloke, a decent bloke, but he was disturbing to look at for any length of time.

'What can I do for you, Mr Brodie?' The voice was rich and deep, the only asset Jimmy possessed.

Patrick loved the way Jimmy always addressed him by his full title when work was being discussed. It was another of the things he liked about Jimmy Brick. He knew that Jimmy separated his work from his real life, which was something he did as well. It was a necessity in their game.

'Jimmy, mate, I want to offer you an in, a real in. Good money and a lot of hard work. What do you say?'

Patrick was pleased to see the boy blush with pleasure and he was more certain than ever that he had chosen the right candidate for the job.

Jimmy held open his arms but he was having difficulty in finding the words he needed to accept the position. His face, though, spoke volumes.

Patrick poured them both large Scotches and, placing the cut-glass tumbler in Jimmy's hand, he said happily, 'To many years, mate.'

Jimmy clinked his glass with gusto, nearly shattering them both, and reminding them of his extraordinary strength. He said shyly, 'I am absolutely over the moon, Mr Brodie. It is an honour to be allowed to work with a person such as yourself.'

It was flowery, it was cheesy, but it was from the heart. Patrick Brodie shook his head and, laughing, he said sotto voce, 'Enough of that poof talk. Anyone hears us and they might think we're a couple of shit-stabbers!'

Jimmy Brick laughed out loud then; his head was thrown back and the laugh was loud and expressive. Patrick decided he liked the sound of it. Jimmy was going to be an asset, he was sure of that.

'We have our first assignment tonight, mate. We are going to give Dennis Williams the fright of his fucking life.'

Patrick saw that Jimmy was pleased about that and wondered if anyone, anywhere, had ever actually liked Dennis Williams.

'Shall I get me tool kit?'

Patrick grinned then and said happily, 'What do you think?'

For all his big talk, Dennis Williams was not expecting Patrick Brodie to come looking for him personally. It was something he had not allowed for at any point, or even thought was a possibility. Consequently, when Patrick Brodie swooped on him and his brothers on their territory, in their own local, he was nonplussed, to say the least.

Patrick had crashed through the heavy wooden doors of the Mill House in Dagenham like an avenging angel. It was a Saturday night so it was packed out with families. Children ran around in their best clothes playing kiss-chase and waiting for the band to play 'Pennies from Heaven'. This was the highlight of their evening, when the adults would throw their change on to the dance floor and the kids would scramble round collecting as much money as they could. Then the disco would commence and the lights would be dimmed and the parents would feel like they were out for the night at last, as the kids went outside where there was bright light and other kids' chatter to interest them.

The Mill House was a real social club. It had the atmosphere that guaranteed a good night out for families and couples alike. It was shabby in the light of day but, come the evening, it took on a magic all of its own. It smelt of crisps, stale beer and a multitude of different perfumes. The tables shone with polish and huge tin ashtrays bore legends such as Marlboro Reds or Senior Service. The floor was wooden and scuffed but so shiny the children could start their night off by sliding from one end of it to the other until they would eventually be told off by an adult. The boys would swagger away like little hard men and go outside into the evening air where they could swagger some more and swear their heads off to impress the girls. It was the beginning of the mating ritual, the first lesson in making a girl notice you and respect you. It was a timeless dance that had been enacted by their parents and grandparents before them. They learned to court while drinking Tizer and playing kiss-chase. Fingers would explore and hands would be allowed liberties and everyone was hot and flushed with this new knowledge that they had acquired.

It was a real family club, not really the kind of setting the Williams boys wanted and not the kind of place where the regulars wanted to see the numerous Williams brothers. Now, though, Dave Williams and his brothers used the Mill House as their base, mainly because they were not sure if they were really welcome in any of the pubs they had frequented for years.

The Williams boys were used to the Mill House now and they were pleased to discover that they were the only real Faces who used the place. They were at first an anomaly and, for the most part, their foray into a local club house had been treated with a certain degree of excitement, until, that is, the novelty had worn off. Seeing the Williams brothers now and again was one thing. Having them there all the time, using the place as their office, was now starting to irritate a lot of the regulars. They were all right, but dangerous. The committee members, older men with families and jobs, were unable to stop the Williams lot from wheeling and dealing as and when they wanted to, yet they were desperate to put an end to the trade that seemed to bring in a lot of unsavoury characters. The big fear, of course, was that the place would be raided and closed down by the police. No one had the nerve to discuss the worries of the family men and the fear for their kids with the Williams family because they were not, what was commonly known as approachable, if the subject touched on them or their businesses in a derogatory way. In fact, they were distinctly cold and menacing. Dennis in particular, who, with his scarred face and head and his broken-toothed grin, could frighten a banshee, let alone anyone else. Dennis was a hard man and he didn't try to hide it. He revelled in his notoriety and it was this that was such a worry to most people. He was vicious when viciousness wasn't warranted or indeed needed.

Being a Face was all Dave wanted from life, all he had ever wanted. A Face was a Face was a Face, as old man Williams would say to them as kids. He had loved Faces, he basked in their reflected glory and lived for the glamour he tried to share in. Now they were Faces in their own right and they were well-known enough to be able to deal their drugs here and share their glamour with a few of the local bully-boys who, like their father before them, would talk about them with hushed tones and respect.

It was a long way from when he was Brodie's main boy and Dave had eventually come to terms with that; at least he let his brothers think so. He knew that Dennis was living on borrowed time. He had hoped that he could keep him away from Patrick and Spider long enough for them to calm down a bit. Maybe even give Dennis another chance. Dave sighed. He was on the powder again and he knew that it was only the speed making him believe that Dennis could walk away from all the shit he had created. He was going to have to answer for his stupidity at some point and the burning question was, when? They couldn't hide away here for ever. He was in such a high state that he was actually getting the rushes again and everything was suddenly so real and bright he felt the urge to start dancing.

Dave went into the toilet and cut himself another line. If only they sold this stuff to the punters they would be rocking with him. They didn't though. It was cut to fuck by the time they sold it off. But it was a good buzz whatever and, as he snorted the amphetamine, he felt the burn inside his nose that told him it had been cut with strychnine at some point. Dave grinned and said to his reflection, 'Bring back glucose, all is forgiven.'

Dave was laughing like a hyena at his own joke and he folded his wrap up carefully before going back out to the club. As he shuffled out of the toilet and went back into the club, the noise hit him like a wall and he winced in pain. He saw a couple of his dealers at the bar and sighed.

They were now responsible for any dope that shot out of the Anglers, the old man's pub opposite the Mill House, and a few other little pubs around and about that Patrick and Spider wouldn't be interested in. The Volunteer pub on the Barking and Dagenham roundabout was where they should be dealing, it was always kicking. The club there was called Flanagan's Speakeasy and it was packed to capacity almost every night. But Spicier had that one sewn up so they let it go.

Dave started chatting up a young girl with badly permed black hair, glitter on her cheekbones and a bright yellow satin jacket that didn't cover her huge breasts. He knew, without asking her, that she was into Marc Bolan. Well, she could be into the fucking Beam River if she wanted to. All he cared about was a fuck. Although whether he was capable of any kind of hard-on, he wasn't sure. It was worth a try though.

Dave was rocking, speeding out of his nut. He knew she was a little schoolgirl dressed up for her night out and that her father was probably watching them with fear in his heart and no way to protect his child. Dave was past caring these days. He was a nervous wreck; he just seemed to be waiting for the balloon to go up. He was burdened with the guilt of nearly killing his brother; the realisation that he was capable of nearly murdering his own flesh and blood had been a revelation. The fact that he had enjoyed it, was sorry he had not finished the job, was what was making him so uneasy. Dennis was his brother and he loved him. Unfortunately, he was also a vain, temperamental and violent lunatic who would always bring trouble to their door. Dennis couldn't even help it, he just attracted trouble. In all honesty, a lot of the time he caused it, mainly because he loved the adrenaline rush it brought him. And the attention, he loved to be the centre of attention, always for the wrong reasons. Dave loved his brother but hated him with a vengeance for all the trouble he had brought to his doorstep. Because it was always left to him to clear up the mess, he was always the fall guy. And now they had no real income any more, no security, because Patrick Brodie had aimed them out of it and so he should. Patrick had given him the opportunity to come back, but how could he? Dennis wouldn't last five minutes on his own, and as for his other brothers, he had seen more brains on a butcher's floor. Dennis was a fucking liability and that was something that would never change.

As Patrick and his boys crashed through the doors and into the club, Dave almost felt relieved that this was finally happening and would soon be over.

Dennis was so surprised that he just stood there open-mouthed and looking, as more than one person noted, gormless.

Patrick looked at Dennis with a frown and then he said with deep disgust and an underlying menace that was evident to everyone around them, 'You had to be expecting me, Dennis, so what's with the fucking shocked face? Surely you didn't think I had forgotten about you?'

Patrick Brodie was talking to him and worse, was treating him, like he was a nothing, a no-neck, the shit on his shoes and Dennis knew that only a madman would be fool enough to try to salvage what was left of their reputation by answering him back. He was expected to swallow his knob and he knew that anyone with half a brain would shut the fuck up, but was not sure how much brain he actually had left.

The people around the bar were thrilled to see Patrick Brodie in their little club; they were also secretly hoping that he might knock Dennis Williams on to his arse. The general consensus was that he was a big-mouthed toss-pot, though no one would say that to his face of course. Dennis was under the mistaken impression that he was popular. Faces were, for the most part, Diamond Geezers; nice blokes who were approachable and friendly and who didn't feel the need to be a hard man twenty-four-seven. Whereas the Dennis Williamses of the world, although they might be afforded the same courtesy as other Faces, were not liked enough to command either loyalty or respect from anyone around them. At least not when there was a real, bona fide Face making them look like they were a fool. A plastic gangster was a term that had recently come into common usage and it now seemed a fitting description for Dennis Williams.

Dave went to Patrick and tried to salvage at least a shred of the friendship they had shared for so long. 'Not in here, Pat, eh?'

Patrick almost sneered at his one-time friend. His thick dark hair was almost blue in the disco lights and his eyes were like slits as he looked Dave up and down with obvious distaste.

'I want my fucking money and I want it now.'

Dave screwed his handsome face up into a frown of confused wonderment. It was a face that Patrick had seen him pull once too often in the past when they were questioning someone and not getting the answers they required.

'What is he on about, Den?'

Patrick was not surprised that Dave took his word over his brother's; if Dennis Williams was asked what he had for breakfast he would add a sausage. Lying came so easily to him that he couldn't distinguish between the truth and his fannying any more.

'Dennis, please.'

The music had stopped and everyone was watching them closely. Patrick flicked his head at Dennis and Jimmy Brick walked over to him and, with a pretence of friendliness, he ushered him out of the club and into a waiting car. Dennis was like a little lamb. He knew when he was beaten and he was not going to cause himself any more pain than necessary.

Patrick walked out then, followed by his other two minders and Dave. He turned at the doorway and said, 'Go back, Dave. This is going to be fucking seriously painful and before you get all fucking nostalgic for your brother, remember this: he had a hundred grand off my mate earlier today and that was the straw that broke this fucking cunt's back, all right?' He was not sure why he was justifying hammering Dennis Williams, but he heard himself doing it anyway. He respected and liked Dave so he didn't want to give him false hopes or any lies.

'Don't kill him, Pat, please. Me mum would go off her head.' Patrick laughed then. 'Your mum is so far off her fucking head, even Ozzy Osbourne talks sense in comparison to her. Now fuck off and leave me to sort this out once and for all.'

As Patrick got into the car with Dennis and Jimmy, Dave heard him saying quietly and authoritatively, 'Look, Den, my old nan used to say there are two tragedies in life. One is not getting what you want and the other is getting it. You are getting what you have been asking for, Dennis, and you are not getting what you want. Deal with it and fucking stop eyeballing me, you fucking ugly cunt.'

Dennis was shaking with fear. Jimmy Brick was a torturer who was known to have no empathy with his victims and he was capable of inflicting horrific injuries without any kind of remorse at all. He had stripped a man of all the skin on his leg just to find out if he had slept with a known associate's wife. The guy was banged up and had heard a whisper; he had appealed to Jimmy to find out the truth of it so he could put his mind at rest. Jimmy had taken the man's skin off in long strips and when he had found out what he wanted, he had dumped the guy in a wheelie bin minus his skin, his ears and his scrotum. The worst thing of all though, was that he had done that for a favour, not even for remuneration or to get a rep. It had been done as a favour, that's all.

Now, Dennis saw Jimmy staring at his scars and he knew, without a second's doubt, that he was already working out the best way to go about his night's work. He would open a few of the scars for maximum pain and add a few more for good measure.

Dennis suddenly felt the cold hand of fear that comes to all violent people. They were always the biggest cowards when it was their turn to play and Dennis Williams was already crying silently before they had even turned out of the car park and on to the A13. Dave stood in the doorway of the Mill House and watched the car until the tail-lights disappeared into the distance.

Spider was in the Beehive in Brixton waiting for Cain to pick him up and eyeing up a tall African girl with dark eyes and four-inch platforms.

She was smiling at him with the invitation he was used to being offered and with the same high-handedness that always attracted him to his women. But he had enough on his hands at the moment with his latest partner and the tantrums she could command at any time of the day or night. He put this one in the back of his mind for future reference, though it was worth giving her a smile anyway. You never knew what the future might bring.

Spider was on his fifth pint of Guinness when Cain came in and motioned for him to go outside. For the first time in years, he saw his brother looking worried and he followed him outside with trepidation. A lot was going on this night and he wondered what part they would have to play in it.

Dennis was lying on a concrete floor and he could feel the coldness and the dampness seeping into his bones. He had been lying there for what seemed a long time, though in reality it had only been about forty-five minutes. He was trussed up like a chicken, his hands were tied behind his back and his legs were tied at the knees, making it hard to get himself comfortable. He could smell oil and petrol and the smells were not making him feel any better. He was not sure exactly where he was. It was too dark and he had been too frightened to really take any notice of where he was going; he had been told to look at the floor of the car and he had complied because he knew he was now relying on the friendship he had once had with Brodie to see him through till the morning.

His eyes were getting accustomed to the dimness and he looked around him with interest; he could see tyres piled up, smell the rubber and the dirt. There were also a lot of packing crates that he guessed held either knocked-off gear or drugs and as he was now sobering up by the second he wondered whose garage he was now incarcerated in. He hoped it wasn't anyone he knew well; the shame would be unbearable. As would this whole episode if it became common knowledge.

This was going to be the humiliation of a lifetime and he knew, without a doubt, that he would have to suffer it if he was going to come out with his life. Dennis finally understood that he had crossed all the lines and that he was not hard enough to ever take on the big boys. It was too early in his career and he was not liked enough to expect any kind of back-up. Dave had warned him over and over again and had even tried to knock some sense into him but he had not believed that this night would ever really come.

The door opened and as the lights were switched on, he felt the burn behind his eyes and the sting of the tears that he knew were more about terror than anything else. He watched warily as Jimmy walked purposefully towards a large workbench with a vice on one end and an array of spray cans on the other. Dennis saw then that this was a working garage so that meant they only had a few hours until the place would be a hive of activity.

He wondered how long he would be on this floor and how much of his blood would be spilt on the sawdust that Jimmy was now sprinkling liberally all around him. He could hear the faint sounds of cars in the distance and knew he was most likely still in the Smoke.

As he watched Jimmy prepare himself for his night's work, he understood just how he had made other people feel over the years, and he understood that with Jimmy Brick this wasn't about being a hard man, it was just something he did when requested and something that he knew he did well.

Dennis could hear a kettle boiling in the background; he hoped that it wasn't going to be part of his punishment and he prayed that whatever happened he would be man enough to take it without begging or pleading. Even now, how he was perceived was still his main priority and he still believed that he had enough credibility left to be given an easy ride.

Then, when he saw Jimmy Brick taking out his chisels and his hammers, he lost it completely and it took Patrick and Jimmy ten minutes to finally gag him and stop the screaming.

They were laughing as they did this, which did nothing to allay the fears of Dennis Williams.

Chapter Twelve

Patrick was happy enough with the turn recent events had taken. Spider and Cain had been involved, as had a few of his other trusted personnel. It was a week since Dennis Williams had been given a serious talking-to and the general consensus was that he had asked for it and he had finally got it.

No one actually knew what that talking-to was supposed to be about, but speculation was rife, and that was exactly what Pat Brodie had counted on. People had a much better time when they were speculating and, eventually, a load of old cods would turn into public opinion; someone would get pissed and pretend they had been in on it all, knew the real SP, and that would be that.

If anyone had actually been told the extent of Dennis Williams's talking-to, it would have made more than a few so-called hard men wonder if they would be seeing their last meal in a sink or on the floor within minutes of the details being revealed.

So, speculation was rife and that was exactly what Brodie wanted.

As he sat in his office and waited for Dave Williams to come by, as requested, he hoped they could finally put this whole sorry business to bed. Patrick had learned one thing out of it all, that he had given Dave too much leeway over the years and that was a mistake he was not going to make twice in a lifetime.

Jimmy Brick was becoming one of the main players in his world and this was also being noted by the powers that be, and Jimmy was feeling the warmth of his new-found status. Birds in particular were lining up for his favours and he was still deciding which one he was going to honour with his cock.

Patrick made a point of knowing what his workforce were up to and now he knew all about Jimmy Brick and his lifestyle.

There were two contenders for the title of Jimmy Brick's bird. One was a small blonde with big tits and a bubbly personality; she loved the life, loved being in the spotlight and loved the attention Jimmy was showering on her. The other girl was quiet, mousy-haired but with a body that most women would pay a fortune to be in possession of. She was also a kind, generous individual who had a nice personality, a good vocabulary and was unfortunately in awe of villains. She was basically an also-ran even though she actually liked Jimmy. The former was going to win the competition; she was brash and she had made sure he would want her and all her body had to offer. She would regret it until the day she died.

The girl in question was unaware that once Jimmy had made his mind up, the relationship was going to be a lifetime membership, whether she wanted it or not. Like a Reader's Digest subscription, Jimmy was for life, but as yet, she was blissfully ignorant of that fact.

Jimmy was not a man to take himself or anyone else lightly and the few months that his chosen beau would enjoy, playing the devoted lover of the new main man, would soon seem like a high price to pay. The excitement of becoming Jimmy Brick's bird would eventually turn into years of misery, jealousy and heartache.

The fact that the girl suddenly wanted him, coinciding with his new-found status, would be offensive to Jimmy, even though he would happily use that power to get what he wanted. It was a recipe for disaster: not for Jimmy Brick, but for the girl in question. Trust would always be an issue, as would any kind of honesty, because she would learn to tell him only what he wanted to hear. His natural antagonism would ensure that no matter what happened, she would always be suspect because he would always know that it was only his reputation and his poke that kept her beside him. She would eventually fantasise about him being nicked so she could finally walk away from him.

Jimmy was a one-woman man though, like all his predecessors, and that was as rare in their world as a straight judge or an honest bank robber. Once he chose her, there would be no going back for either of them. He would own her, it was as simple as that, no matter what she felt about it. Jimmy Brick would keep her on side to show her fidelity, prove she wanted to be with him whatever. If she walked away at any time, he would be seen as an ice-cream, a loser. He would never let that happen to him. All he had was his dignity, and he would hang on to that with every ounce of his considerable strength. If a child arrived, it would only cement their relationship because no one in their right mind would ever dare to take her on board after that. Even a thirty-sentence passed eventually. But it would be a while before the life-sentence the girlfriend had inadvertently taken on would be seen as absolute.

Pat Brodie was aware of all this; he had dealt with Jimmy Bricks all his life and he knew how to handle them. He was a dangerous little fuck, and he would need constant monitoring at all times. That was also par for the course where looney tunes like him were concerned. They had a terrible habit of killing people for all the wrong reasons, mainly their wives or their birds, occasionally even a stranger who was stupid enough to front them up on a nice sunny afternoon.

That would always be Jimmy's Achilles heel: the destruction of a drunken punter in the pub or the loud-mouthed bastard in the restaurant who didn't realise what they were taking on. That would be his nicking if he wasn't careful; anger put so many people in clink, it was unbelievable.

The people Jimmy was paid to harm or remove from his orbit were a different ball game: there was no emotion then; no room for anger or resentment. It was just a job, no more and no less. Brodie understood this man's mindset and he also knew how to utilise it for his own gain. It was, as he always said, the nature of the beast, and they were beasts, all of them. They just didn't know how to classify themselves.

Jimmy was a young man who needed guidance, who needed someone to keep him on the straight and narrow. Brodie was going to be that person and he was going to take care of him, not only as an asset to his business but as someone he could mould, could make into a second-in-command.

Pat Brodie had to run a business and so he needed nutcases but this time, as an added bonus, he was involved with someone he liked and respected. The boy had potential and balls, the two main ingredients for their kind of life.

Jimmy had taken Dennis out with a deliberately long and completely unnecessary violence that had been tightly controlled but obviously hugely enjoyable to the man himself. Pat had been impressed and disgusted all at the same time. But this was exactly what was needed. From now on, Jimmy Brick would be a byword for hate and despair, pain and terror. His rep would stop trouble before it began because no one would want to tangle with a fuckhead like Jimmy. Those who did would then see the error of their ways quick smart. He was like a cancer, he would get you in the end. He was like a guarantee of calm because now he had started his reign of terror only a fucking lunatic would be stupid enough to take him on.

Patrick was in the market for a Jimmy Brick because Jimmy would earn his inflated wage by going down for him at some point. As long as no one could prove who ordered a beating or a murder, no one could ever knock on Pat's door, it was as simple as that. Jimmy was a good bloke but also his own personal fall guy if everything ever fell out of bed. Jimmy Brick was the new Dave Williams. Not that he would ever point that out, of course, he was too shrewd by half.

Smiling, Patrick poured himself a large brandy and, sipping it, he looked out of the grimy window at people going about their daily business in Soho.

He was pleased with himself, happy with his life and what it could bring him in the near future. He knew Jimmy had been a shrewd move on his part and he was happy to relax now and wait for him to bring in the money, the poke, the peace of mind. He had been the resident nutter for too long, it was time he took a back seat. He could relax and just make the odd appearance when it was deemed necessary. People had no idea of the war that was waged on a daily basis; of how keeping yourself on top took nearly all your time. Soho was a place where fortunes were made, and fortunes were lost on the turn of a card; or the chatter of a belligerent employee. Where people were expendable and life was of no real consequence.

'You are who you beat.' That was said by the man he had shot here so many years ago and Brodie knew that had been a lesson well learned by the both of them.

He looked out the window again, enjoying the sights and the sounds as he always had. This was his second home and when he wasn't with Lil, this was the only other place he felt comfortable, felt as if he belonged.

Nothing in Soho was ever really kosher, and no one ever admitted to anything ever. Even people's names were just pretend, like the whole place was pretend. More so even than the theatres that abounded; the stories they acted out for their audiences night after night were not a patch on the real-life stories happening on the streets outside their doors

Brodie sighed and wondered at a man like himself, someone who could see this place as anything other than a cesspool. It destroyed people on a regular basis, especially the women; their turnover was phenomenal in comparison with other places that dealt in flesh and pornography, like Shepherds Market. That was where the Soho girls were likely to end their days, or Notting Hill and, worst-case scenario, for the diseased or for the beaten and scarred, the dock areas, what was left of them anyway. But as a man this didn't really affect him so he could turn a blind eye, choose to ignore the price women paid so he could smoke his expensive cigars and pat himself on the back over his success. That was the secret of Soho and its patrons: as long as you kept your minions at arm's length and didn't dwell too much on the price that would be exacted by the punters, you could relax, relax and enjoy the spoils of a war that had never really been declared on the unsuspecting girls who saw Soho as some kind of refuge. At first, girls could lose themselves there; no one would find them if they were clever enough to keep their real identities a secret. But it was a vicious circle and, like any circle, it had no beginning and no end. The great job they had acquired, the independence they thought was so important, eventually turned out to be the worst things that could ever happen to them. It was a seductive life for young runaways. It seemed glamorous and exciting, money for old rope, money that was easily earned and easily spent because it was always going to be there the next day and the day after that and the day after that, until years had passed and they were caught in the never-ending cycle that was prostitution. Every year their punters became less well-heeled and every year their expectations were lowered. In the end they would be on the street hustling for enough money to keep them stoned and out of it enough to forget what their lives had become.

This was a dangerous game and it was an earner, but not for the women of course.

The only real winners were the men like him, the men who used the women they found on a daily basis and discarded them when they were not needed any more. Over the years the girls, at least most of them, had become like animals to him; he had no real feelings for them. How could he when they had no feelings for themselves?

It didn't do to dwell on anything for too long in his job, especially as he was long past caring these days and he made sure of that much at least. He only cared about his family; anyone else was just collateral damage, no more and no less.

He stared out of the window. Late afternoon was a favourite time for him in Soho, the streets were just getting busy with people who were expecting a good night out and who were either ignorant or uncaring about how that would eventually come about. The night drawing in also brought out all the locals. The staple of Soho evenings, the reason people congregated here night after night. It was a mixture of the young, the stupid, the used and the users. Then, of course, there were the people like him, without whom none of the former could ply their wares. Whatever anyone thought of him and his peers, they were the staple diet of Soho, they kept the place ticking over and kept the mystique that attracted the punters and the revellers.

Everyone loved a face, a villain, and everyone liked to be associated with the glamour that villainy provided for them. The rich and famous were drawn to people like him, like moths to a flame. It was how it worked and he milked it for all it was worth. What else could he do?

This was one of the reasons he needed a Jimmy Brick. The clubs were frequented by Names these days; they were the meeting ground for the great and the good, and in reality they paid enough protection, and owned enough filth to ensure that their more exotic customers got a free pass and peace of mind. Now he had to sort out the final piece of the puzzle and, once that had been obtained, he could relax with the best of them.

He watched the strippers passing each other on the street as they made their way from club to club, calling out to each other, glad to see their counterparts as it made them feel less lonely and less afraid of what the night might bring. The scouts were already at work, trying to talk the punters into the strip bars or the hostess clubs, promising the earth and delivering nothing but the empty promise of good times to be had. The air was cold enough to make all their breath visible and the scantily dressed women upped their usual pace, hurrying into the warmth of their next club.

Patrick Brodie loved the West End, and he felt at home there.

He had no worries about losing his crown because he had earned it, fair and square, and he was respected and, more importantly, he was feared. He had made sure of that, and he was proud of it as well. Soho was a shithole to the majority of people. To him it was just a means to an end.

Lil, the love of his life, was cooking another baby and once she was delivered of it, she would be back to her usual self. His kids were smart, handsome and well-looked after. He had money all over the show, a beautiful home and he had what he had never believed was possible for a man brought up as he had been. He had happiness inside himself, real happiness, even if he didn't look like he did. Only Lil, his Lil, knew how happy he was and how much he cherished his life with her. Everything else was as nothing when measured against his family.

God had been good to him, he knew, and he thanked him every Sunday by paying his respects and enjoying the peace and tranquillity that church seemed to bring him.

Life, he felt, was good.

'My party is going to be the best party ever and you can invite any of your friends, Lance.'

Pat Junior was feeling magnanimous, even though his brother had been irritating him all day. He knew that he was being overly nice about Lance and his wicked tongue and though he had decided that he was just a really annoying little brother like any other, he understood his brother's unhappiness better than Lance did.

'Why would my friends want to go to your crappy party?'

Pat Junior shrugged at his brother's words. 'Well, the offer is there if you want to ask anyone.'

He stopped himself from saying, 'if you have anyone to ask that is', but he knew it was pointless because he didn't get any kind of thrill from hurting his brother's feelings. He knew Lance had the burden of knowing that their mum didn't really have a lot of time for him, though she pretended to, and that his Nanny Annie had too much time for him, which he guessed was why his mum got so annoyed with his brother.

His nan seemed to take Lance over as soon as she stepped on to the premises and that suited him because Pat hated her, really hated her, though he had never admitted that to anyone out loud, of course. He knew his mum put up with her and the girls liked her because she was enamoured with them like everyone else was. Twins did that, they made people take notice of them somehow. He adored his little sisters, and he understood why they made such an impression. But Lance was hard work and he felt for his brother even as he got angry with him.

So he sighed heavily, saying, 'Well you can ask anyone you want, OK?'

Lance nodded, feeling bad now. He knew Pat Junior was at the end of his considerable patience so he smiled and, as always, it changed his whole face; he looked handsome and innocent. The way he would have looked all the time if he wasn't always on the look out for slights or what he saw as insults.

'Thanks, mate. I'll think about it, all right?'

Pat Junior nodded.

And then they both sat down and watched Jackanory together in what was, for once, almost a friendly silence.

Lil walked in and saw her two sons together and smiled at them. They were both so alike and even Lance seemed happy for a change. As she sat down herself and sipped at a cup of tea, she wished that she could feel this contentment more often. But it was so difficult for her because she knew she couldn't.

Lance was watching her warily from the corner of his eye and the guilt that she felt because of him rose up inside her as it always did and made her feel so bad about herself that she almost cried. She tried as hard as she could with him, but the urge to slap this child of hers was overwhelming.

She watched as Patrick Junior glanced at his brother and then slipped his hand into Lance's, all the while acting like there was no atmosphere in the room and there was nothing to be worried about. It was the way that Lance grabbed at his brother's hand as if he was saving him from drowning that was the worst thing of all. Because she knew that Patrick was, as usual, acting as a wall that kept her and her second son as far away from each other as was physically possible and she did nothing to stop him.

Lil appreciated her eldest son's help and loved him all the more because she knew he was doing it all for her; she knew that he had no real time for Lance either.

Like her husband with Dennis Williams, who had eventually worn out his welcome, her son had the same attitude with his brother. Unlike Dennis Williams though, Lance had the sense to keep on his brother's good side.

Lil was worried though. Dennis had nearly brought trouble to her door and even though Pat had sorted it, she was still smarting from it. No matter what Pat said or, more to the point, didn't say, she had her mother to rely on where gossip was concerned.

The Williams brothers would always be trouble to them, she was convinced of that much at least.

Dave was nervous and he wondered what kind of reception he was going to get in Patrick's office. He hoped against hope that he would be alone, that he didn't have to talk to him with an audience of any kind. He felt Pat owed him that much at least but he couldn't demand it; his days of demanding anything were long gone.

The fact he was invited to the club was a touch because he knew that if Pat Brodie was going to do anything to him it would not be where he could be seen or heard. He needed to know the score, not just for him, but for his brothers who were waiting for him to let them know if they were safe or not. The family had been divided and all he could do now was to try to iron out their differences as best he could. If that meant swallowing his knob then he was willing to do it like a professional hostess. Dave was more than aware that anything he was given now would be the dregs and he had to accept that and work his way back into Pat's good books. He had to try to salvage something of their working relationship so that his brothers and himself could at least earn a crust of some sort.

He was also worried about what had happened to Dennis. He knew Jimmy had been on board, so he knew that it wasn't going to be anything he wanted to hear, though he would listen to the gory details if necessary and accept it with as good a grace as he could.

At the end of the day, he had to keep reminding himself that, no matter what, he had to do what was best for the rest of the family, himself included. That the old days were dead and gone. He had to take what was offered with as much pride and dignity as he could muster, and eventually it would all blow over.

At least that is what he kept telling himself.

As he parked his car and walked slowly through the evening bustle that was Soho, he felt the sickness rising inside his chest. This had once been his stomping ground, had once been the epitome of everything he had ever wanted or indeed ever achieved but now the streets were cold and unfriendly and he didn't feel a part of it all any more.

The flashing neon lights and the garish posters with nude women and their strategically placed stars, were alien to him. Sex was on sale everywhere, but underlying that was the stench of pimps and the Brodies, all out to take whatever they wanted.

The smell of Chinese food mixed with pasta was sickening and the grey-skinned women who only seemed to come alive at night looked sinister; their make-up and cheap clothes suddenly showing him just how false the world he had inhabited for so long really was.

Soho was all top show and if you scratched the surface you were reminded that it was all built on lies and pretence; he had been part of that pretence once and now he was being forced on to the sidelines. It was a very cruel lesson and one he would remember all his life.

No one acknowledged his existence any more. There were no friendly waves or the humorous shouting he had become used to. He saw people deliberately turning away from him, as if he was diseased, and in a way he was. He was now an outsider looking in and it felt worse than anything he had ever experienced before in his life.

As Dave walked into the warmth of the club, he was left with no illusions about his status in the community where he had once been a leading player.

The head girl, Lynda Marks, looked him up and down with obvious distaste before saying archly, 'I'll let him know you're here, shall I?'

Her whole demeanour told him just how far he had fallen and it was this more than anything that really hit him where it hurt.

If the hostesses felt they could talk down to you then you really were about as low as you could possibly get.

But he knew he had to take whatever was dealt him, because he had fucked up big time. It would be years before he was even accepted back into the lower echelons of the world he had come to see as his own; let alone be trusted. He had to make sure that Patrick Brodie understood that he was here today, cap in hand and with all the humility he could muster, in the hope that he could salvage at least something from this debacle. At least get a living for himself and his brothers. He needed to find out whether Dennis was alive or dead and if they at least had something left to bury or whether he had to tell his mother there were no remains to cry over, nothing tangible to grieve for. As he waited for his audience he was sweating with nerves and dry-mouthed with fear.

'Look at that pair of maggots!' Annie's voice was soft for once and, as was her wont these days, it was the sight of her twin granddaughters that was the cause of it.

'Lovely ain't they, Mum. I hope this one's a girl and all.'

Lil put her hands under her large lump and lifted it carefully; this was the biggest she had ever been before and everyone assumed she was either carrying a boy or failing that, another set of twins.

She wanted another girl though. She liked the girls and since Lance's birth, she was frightened of another son, of having another boy that she would not be able to love.

The twins were lying side by side once more and talking their own language. It was fascinating to watch them. They were like mirror images of one another and unless you knew them really well, it was difficult to tell them apart.

Her mother's obvious love for them had melted even her heart and their relationship had been easier because of that, easier than it had been for a long time. Annie was always trying to build bridges and helping her out and she appreciated that. As Lil looked around her cluttered front room, she felt the tiredness and the excitement of the new baby acutely.

She only hoped that Patrick would be around for the birth. He was always interested in how she was feeling; he thought he could suss out the sex of the child by asking her questions and feeling her belly. He was like most men when it came down to it, he had no idea what it was like to have your body taken over for nine months yet he was convinced he was an expert. She gave birth and he took the kudos. As her mother said, men were about as much use as a chocolate teapot around a pregnant woman and she had to agree that, for once, she was right.

Annie had been a godsend lately, what with the party and the twins and Patrick being on the missing list so much. Her body was rebelling against this child for some reason and she would be glad to get it out into the open and finally have a proper gander at it. Only a girl could be the cause of her uncomfortable nights, even more uncomfortable days, and the reason for her constant backache and penchant for tears. Never before had she felt so low, or so high, while carrying a child. This one, she was sure, would be special.

As Lance lifted Eileen up and carried her to bed, she smiled slightly; he was good with his sisters, especially Eileen. The weirdness she felt when she was around him had to be her fault, had to be coming from her. Lance tried his hardest to make her love him but she knew that no matter what she did to assure him that was the truth, he knew in his heart that she was pretending.

It was just on eight and the club was still almost empty except for a few of the City boys who liked a drink, a flash of stripper flesh and a quick feel before they lumbered home to their wives. When Dave was finally taken into Patrick's office he was on the verge of tears, such was his nervousness.

Patrick was sat at his desk drinking brandy: a good sign, and smoking one of his cigars: a very good sign. Patrick loved his Cuban smokes, everyone knew that, even though he only smoked them when he was in a club, never at home.

Dave smiled tremulously and saw the pity in Pat's eyes. He had fallen so far in the space of a few months and he felt it acutely, especially now that he had finally gained an appointment with the man who had not only taken out his brother, but had also been the cause of every good thing that had happened to them for many years.

Pat smiled at him sadly. 'Want a drink, Dave?'

He nodded his assent with far too much enthusiasm and with far too much relief. It was embarrassing to watch, and Dave knew it would make his humiliation even harder to bear. This was the shape of things to come and he knew he would not be able to bear it.

Patrick was heartsore at the predicament his friend had found himself in. He had always liked the kid; he didn't have half the brain or half the gumption of his older brother but he had possessed enough heat to make Pat feel he was worth giving a chance to out of respect for his dead brother, Dicky.

He had only given him an in because of his brother and he had made a bad judgement. Now he was paying for it; they were all paying for it.

As he handed the boy a drink, Jimmy Brick was ushered into the small office and young Dave went white at the sight of him. Even his lips had gone white, so shocked was he to see him.

This annoyed Patrick. Dave should have expected something like this; he was hardly going to leave the meet between these two for months or years was he? The fact that Dave had not expected it was another reason why he should have realised that the guy was a skank, a fucking waster. Dave should already have had his speech prepared and his sincere apology; should have understood the economics of their world. Instead, he was standing there like a fucking nonce.

Patrick looked at Dave and tried to convey this with a discreet shake of his head; praying that the boy finally took on board what was expected of him. He had to either fight like fuck and make a stand over his brother's death or swallow and forever be a gofer, a cunt.

Dave did nothing and Patrick was devastated, even though he had not expected anything different. The room was filled with tension and also disappointment and Jimmy's easy shrug called for the whole episode to be brought to an end.

Dave watched as Jimmy Brick was embraced by Brodie as if he was a long-lost brother. He knew then that he should have made the first move and embraced Jimmy Brick as if it was all just a silly mistake. He should have realised that Jimmy would now be the person who controlled what he earned and how much responsibility he would be allowed to take on in the future. He had fucked up once more and no one was sorrier than Patrick Brodie; he had tried to build a bridge between them but he had been too stupid to take that on board. Dave observed the solidarity these two men displayed so openly with a sad face and a slumped demeanour. He was already beaten and they didn't need to rub it in; that much was obvious to them all.

Jimmy's dead eyes were finally alive and Patrick realised that they were alive with malice. He was enjoying this little meeting and he understood that Dave was being taught a very valuable lesson and it was Jimmy's job to ram it home, hard and fast, so it would not easily be forgotten.

Once more, the Williams brothers had missed a golden opportunity.

Chapter Thirteen

'I mean it, don't fucking wind me up. I ain't giving you nix.'

Dave and Tommy Williams were both at a point where murder was definitely an option. The man they were fighting with knew this but was not worried; at least, he was not as worried as he should have been. Both the Williams brothers were more than aware that he seemed almost uninterested. Colin Parker was an arsehole and they knew it. Till now, though, he had always been a nervous arsehole.

'Where the fuck is the money, Col? Just give it to us, eh.' The uncertainty was in Dave's voice and Parker knew it. He snorted with contempt, his red face and unshaven cheeks making him look worse than ever. He was an ugly man anyway, his sneer just made him look even uglier.

'Can I ask you two something?' His voice was calm, as if interested in their answer.

Dave nodded, out of curiosity. 'Course, what?'

Colin grinned and it was a sarcastic and brave action. Holding out his arms, he said slowly, 'Do I look even remotely bothered? You don't scare me. You're fucking ice-creams, no more and no less.'

He lit a joint with steady hands and when it was sparked up properly, he said with heavy sarcasm, If your brother Dennis ain't with you then you can both fuck off. Let's face it, he was the scary one.'

Colin Parker smiled then, a confident smile, one that was guaranteed to annoy. He was a small-time gambler who had a serious habit and, ergo, an even more serious debt. He was paying fuck all if he didn't have to.

Colin was a short, shaven-headed individual, stocky and strong. A founding member of the ICF, he was a bully boy who saw himself as above the common herd and as someone who could also look after himself if the fancy took him. He fought on the terraces every Saturday although that was often en masse. Alone, he could hold his own but he preferred to have a gang behind him. Safety in numbers was his usual credo, but these two didn't seem to be too much of a worry. Not after what he had heard on the streets; they were on their last legs. The Williams brothers had once been a force to be reckoned with, but not any more. These two were like Mutt and Jeff. About as hard as a nun with a water pistol.

He knew the Williams brothers were not the Faces they had once been and therefore he saw no reason to give them any money he could be using to his own advantage. A bet was a bet after all, and if he could delay payment, all the better. He wasn't averse to a little break in his payments to give him time to recoup his money or win back what he owed.

He grinned once more as he said, with conviction, 'Up yours, cunts.'

There was no respect in his voice and no fear. His attitude was becoming a regular occurrence lately and it hurt. Dave knew they were not going to get anything from this bloke without some serious threats and some serious violence. But Colin was a football fighter, he spent his Saturdays looking for aggro on the terraces. As a Boleyn boy, born and bred, he saw the North Bank as his stomping ground. Upton Park was his excuse to hurt people and gambling was his excuse to relax and take stock between games.

The Williams boys held no real threat as far as he was concerned, he knew they were yesterday's news and even when they had been on top, he had not felt any real kind of fear where they were concerned. He paid out for Brodie, no one else, and that had always been just before a serious reminder of his debt had been called for. This time though, he owed the money to Cain and Spider. People he had less time for than even Dave and his brothers.

When he was betting with Patrick he was a prompt payer, never more than a few days over his deadline, and even then, a smile and a cheery wave as he settled his debt. Not any more. Now, it seemed, he owed a grand to someone he saw as nothing more than a greedy black bastard; like he was going to put himself out to serve that ponce up with anything other than a fucking good hiding. Brodie should be ashamed of passing the betting monies over to the blacks.

If he didn't have such an important job on the terraces, sorting out the men from the boys, he would have been in the army. And now he had the added insult of being accosted by a couple of has-beens collecting his hard-earned poke for the blackies. What a fucking liberty.

It was outrageous and he decided to be offended. 'Tell the coons I ain't giving them nothing, all right?'

Dave saw the futility of his new role and his younger brother, Tommy, was looking at him with an expression that said he was getting towards the end of his tether; that he was looking for some kind of guidance from him. Dave wished that he had brought Ricky along. Although he was the baby, he was far more game and wouldn't expect him to guide his every move.

He had nothing left to give him. He knew that Colin Parker was a nut job and he also knew that if he didn't bring the money back to Cain there would be ambulances arriving and that they wouldn't be for Parker, they would be for them. His confidence was shot and he was a bundle of nerves; his life was like a fucking soap opera these days. All aggro and excess alcohol, it was all he could do these days to climb out of his pit in the morning. He knew that Colin Parker was just fronting, no more and no less, but he also knew that Colin Parker had already sussed out that his tactic had worked. He walked out of the flat in Leytonstone with his heart beating loud in his head and his stomach ready to vacate its contents at any moment.

He took deep breaths to calm himself as he waited for his brother to follow behind him. 'Are you having a tin bath or what, Dave?' Tommy spoke quietly, aware that they would be listened to by anyone within earshot.

Dave shook his handsome head and said in a whisper, 'It's all shit ain't it? It is all fucking, poxy shit. And me and you are the fucking fall guys, thanks to that cunt we called a brother…'

Tommy was fed up with Dave and his girly whining. His anger was phenomenal and his temper was at its height. He was not a man to be fucked with any more. Something had to be said and he was the person to say it. His disgust was evident, even to himself, and also to the brother he had always looked up to. But times were hard and they were changing by the minute, as Dave would soon find out.

'Look at you. Call yourself a man, a Williams? Will you fucking give it a fucking rest? We have to collect this poke or we are fucked. I am just about fed up with it all. Right? So can you just for once, once, concentrate on the job in hand. I don't want a fucking postmortem on our lives and I don't want a fucking post-mortem on our cunt of a brother and his mistakes. I just want the money, that's all. And I want it now, Dave.'

Dave nodded with complete understanding, but without any kind of belief or any kind of energy. He was finished and he knew it but, more to the point, Tommy knew it.

'I know. Course I know that. But you saw Colin, he is a lairy little fucker. What are we supposed to do? I don't want to take him on. I don't want to do this any more.'

And he didn't. Dave had lost the nerve that was needed to iron out enemies. He'd lost the want and the enjoyment that a good fight could bring. Dave was like a fucking no-neck; he was like the people they collared off. Dave had made the ultimate mistake; he had become the person they depended on for their livelihood.

Tommy closed his eyes and sighed, forcing himself to be calm enough to talk rationally.

'What we going to do, mate? How are we going to sort this out, eh? Please, Dave. Pull yourself together and we'll beat this fucker to a pulp and get on with our lives.'

Tommy was irritated and Dave could see that.

'I don't know what to do, Tom. We need to get that money, iron him out as we would usually, but Colin is a mad cunt.'

Tommy sighed heavily. He could hear and feel the fear in his older brother's voice, could feel the indecision and the nervousness inside him. On one level he understood his brother's careful consideration for the family, on another level his brother was getting on his tits. He'd had just about enough. He stared around him for a few moments, breathing in the evening air and calming himself down so he wouldn't lose it completely.

They were on the balcony that fronted the flats, the air stank of chip fat and stale cigarettes. All around them was the bustle of a council estate during the early evening. The young girls were dressed in their finery and hanging around waiting for the young men who would be their downfall. Dealers were out for their first foray of the night and old dears were on their way to bingo, knitted gloves and knitted hats the order of the day. Kids as young as three were still playing out the front, their clothes filthy and their faces already hardened by the act of bringing themselves up.

It was a reminder of their own upbringing and Tommy was on the verge of tears, tears of anger and the humiliation they were on the receiving end of. Tommy was a lump as the local people would say. He was big and he could have a row and he was at the age when he was willing to make his mark, even though his older brothers were happy to sit back and become no-necks, nothings. He couldn't believe they would let the work of a lifetime go, just because they were wary of Brodie. Well, fuck Brodie and fuck the rest of them. He was determined to make his mark, no matter what, and he was going to fight for his right to earn in the highest echelons of their chosen profession once more.

'What the fuck are we going to do then?'

It was a statement and Dave could hear the challenge as well as the anger in his brother's voice. He knew he was finished in his brother's eyes. He only wished he could explain properly just how much trouble they were now in.

'Are you going to answer me, Dave? For fuck's sake, we were asked to collect and I am going to collect, with or without you.'

Dave shook his head in distress. 'No matter what we do, Tom, we won't get any real thanks for it. All we will get is grief from Colin Parker and his cronies.'

Tommy stared into his brother's face and swallowed down the urge to lamp him one.

'It's a fucking grand, that's all. It's peanuts to this wanker and we are hardly asking for the national debt, are we? And if we don't spank for this one we're on the skids; who the fuck will use us in the future? Why would they? We have to make some kind of fucking stand now, or we will be scratching in the dirt for ever.'

Dave knew he was right but he didn't ever want to have to face Jimmy Brick or Patrick Brodie again.

'Give him a week and we'll have a rethink. OK?'

Tommy shook his head in disgust and, hawking in his throat, he spat on to the concrete floor. Then he walked back into the flat and, picking up a kitchen chair, he crashed it over Colin Parker's head with all the strength that he could muster.

Colin was as amazed as Dave. He tried to crawl across the floor on his hands and knees, his head pouring blood and his mouth trying to bring forth some kind of warning, but all he could manage was a low animal grunt. Tommy Williams repeated the blows over and over again. The force of his anger and disappointment made him vicious and determined. Parker tried to crawl under the table but Tommy just kicked him over and over again, until he was spent and Colin was still, lifeless. Tommy stripped him of his jewellery and his wallet and walked outside once more.

He looked at his elder brother and said quietly, and with hatred, 'Fuck you, Dave, and fuck Brodie.'

He pocketed his spoils and walked away from his brother without a backward glance.

Dave watched him go, his heart heavy with the knowledge that he had been beaten and cowed, but with good reason. He knew what could happen if you pushed it too far and he was sorry that he had not explained that sufficiently to his little brothers.

Spider and Cain were in the club they frequented in Paddington. The usual customers gave them the salute they had come to expect and, walking through the main bar to the small offices behind, they greeted everyone with a smile and their usual cheesy grins.

The club was owned by them, though no one would ever be able to prove that. Even paying legitimate taxes was beyond them. They were also not about to be placed anywhere for any length of time by the filth. This was just another hang-out as far as anyone was concerned. Nothing to write home about and nothing could pin them down here.

In the back room, called the office for no other reason than they couldn't think of a better word for it, sat Jimmy Brick and Patrick Brodie. That Spider and Cain were surprised to see them was evident, but they both recovered from their surprise with an ease that made Patrick Brodie suspicious.

'Hey, how are you, man?' Spider, as always, was pleased to see his friend.

Patrick grinned. 'Good, as always.' He stood up and clasped his friend's hand tightly, telling him that he was still in the frame whatever happened.

Patrick sat down once more and stared at Cain with cold eyes. 'And how are you, mate?' The question was loaded with malice and Patrick was pleased to see the flicker of fear that passed ever so briefly over Cain's handsome features. He had hit the mark as he had intended. He just hoped that would be enough to bring him in line.

But Cain recovered his equilibrium quickly and shrugged nonchalantly, saying with the arrogance of youth and inexperience, 'Never better.'

Spider saw the look exchanged between Jimmy and Patrick and his natural suspiciousness took hold.

'Glad to hear it.' Patrick threw a bundle of money on to the table.

'What are you doing letting people like Colin Parker have credit?'

Spider's eyes widened slightly at the words. Other than that, no one would have guessed that he was rattled by Patrick's words. Patrick knew he was though, which is why he had said them in the first place.

'Did you know about this?'

Spider was expecting the question as he knew Patrick would have been expecting him to know it. He wouldn't have asked it otherwise. Brodie was not going to throw him a blind side, a curve, he wanted peace at all costs.

They were just play-acting, and Spider appreciated his friend's decency and his guarded pretence as he spoke to him. Spider was so annoyed that he could easily have bludgeoned his brother with anything that came to hand. Instead, he said, with an almost genuine honesty, 'Please, Pat. You know I would never countenance anything like that.'

Cain could hear the underlying annoyance in his older brother's voice but he was still too new to this game to realise that he was being flaked by the three main players in the room. His brother included.

Cain was unaware just how angry Patrick Brodie was with him, or that he had stepped on someone else's toes. He didn't yet understand that it was only because of his brother he was being given a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

Cain was shrewd enough to know that he had dropped a serious bollock and he was only interested in talking himself out of any kind of aggravation.

'Have I done a wrong 'un?'

Cain was being rude and he was over the top. He was without a brain cell if he honestly thought he was going to get away with any of it. He was standing by Patrick, his arms out in a gesture of supplication; his whole demeanour was telling them that he had had a capture and he was willing to learn from his mistakes. But it was also a gesture that said he was biding his time, that he thought they were all dinosaurs, his brother included. He was under the mistaken apprehension that he was too clever to be caught, that no one really knew the score where he was concerned.

Spider laughed loudly and punched his brother with more might than he would normally.

'You let a fucking racist thug have credit?'

Cain shrugged arrogantly. 'Who cares what he thinks? He wanted to carry on playing and now he owes us more money.'

Patrick nodded at the cash he had thrown down on to the table. 'He owes you nothing. There is a two hundred for your trouble.'

'But he still owes me a grand.' It was said quickly, without thought for who he was addressing and with anger and disrespect.

Patrick looked at him with a cold and calculated contempt. 'You get what I give you, boy.'

The atmosphere was heavy with malice and Cain was surprised to find that his brother was obviously on the opposite side. For the first time ever, Cain was on his own and he didn't like it.

Spider was seriously angry. His dreadlocks were thick and wild and they seemed to take on a life of their own when he lost his temper.

Cain was quick to note that Patrick was not at all fazed, yet his brother was almost spitting feathers. He had never before experienced anything like this and he was not impressed. He was earning, that was supposed to be what they were all about, so why was he being singled out for it? He was being vilified for making a few quid off the skinheads he loathed? Taking the spend off the scum was what they were all about, surely?

'It won't happen again, Pat. I will guarantee it.' Spider spoke with respectful authority and this annoyed his younger brother even more. Spider was supposed to be someone; Spider and Patrick were supposed to be partners. Why was his brother acting like a fucking houseboy?

Patrick knew what was going through Cain's mind; he had expected it. The boy was young, eager and if what he had found out was true, which he suspected it was, then he was also in need of a swift kick up the jacksy.

'Oh have a day off will you!'

The laughter in the room hurt more than anything else.

Patrick was shaking his head in utter disbelief. The boy was a fucking brahma. He was off his tree if he thought they were cunt enough to think he was some kind of businessman. Who in their right mind allowed people like Parker to have credit? Parker was a strictly cash-only gambler. If he was asked to say what he had for breakfast he would lie, add a sausage and then accuse someone of stealing it. He was also a member of the ICF and they were not an organisation to meddle with. They were just out for the fight, nothing more and nothing less. Patrick had no intention of taking them out over a debt. He would have done if he had to; that went without saying. But he had no intention of bringing any kind of notice on himself or on anyone in his organisation because of something so trivial. If Cain thought he was going to make his mark by letting people like Parker scrounge a few bob then he was either a retard or in need of a serious talking-to.

Either way, it was now in Spider's domain and he was happy to let him sort it out. If Spider naused it up, he would step in without a second's thought. He saw Cain was still feeling the heat and he decided to put a block on him once and for all.

'You think this is out of order, don't you?'

Patrick and Spider could see that Cain was still annoyed and that he didn't see what the problem was. Like most youngsters, he had started a chain of events that could bring them all down and he couldn't see that fact. He was still too stupid to even ask why he was being singled out as he was. He was so fucking arrogant that he didn't even have the savvy to question his betters and learn something for the future.

Cain didn't answer him. His pride was hurt and his sensible head was finally telling him to keep his trap shut. The way Jimmy Brick was watching him was disconcerting, to say the least, and he decided he would be better off retreating on this occasion.

'You borrowed money to people who would see any kind of payment as anathema, especially to the likes of you. Tommy Williams ended up killing Colin Parker over a fucking grand. A grand. A fucking pittance and you were the cause of that death, boy. Parker's death could easily have led to us lot getting our fucking collars felt and for what, eh? A poxy grand? You lairy little cunt. We don't need anyone causing us that kind of aggro and the sooner you get your thick head around that, the better.'

Patrick looked at the handsome young man before him and wished he could have dealt with him in an easier manner, but he couldn't. Cain had to learn the hard way about their world and he had been cushioned by Spider for too long. Now they were all on tenterhooks over a fucking ice-cream like Parker. Parker was, after all was said and done, a fucking civilian and when they died people tended to ask questions.

Spider shook his head in desperation. Cain was going to get the rollicking of a lifetime and he was going to enjoy distributing it; the boy needed to understand about the boundaries and guidelines that made up their world. Now was as good a time as any for a lesson in reality.

Jimmy Brick was sorry he was not going to be called on to distribute his special brand of justice. He didn't like Cain, he never had, but Spider had been a personal hero of his since childhood. A diamond geezer, a legend in his own lunch-time. The man who had given him his first real job.

Now he saw Spider as nothing more than a man, someone who was frightened for his younger brother. Family was a fucking bind in their game, it was something to be used as a weapon. If a man stood alone, he was safe and he could be brave and honourable. As long as there was no one you cared for more than you cared for yourself, you had an edge. But families were a danger, families and children were the downfall of many a great man. Once you cared for someone, you had a chink in your armour; you had a fucking gaping big hole in your defences that would be used against you without a second's thought. Jimmy knew that because he would do the same tiling himself if it gained him what he wanted.

Spider was a touch, a fucking dynamo in Jimmy's eyes, but he would never be the same man again now that he had swallowed for his little brother. Mainly because his little brother was not worth his loyalty, was not worth Spider's deliberate disregard for the friendship that he and Brodie had enjoyed for so long. Cain was not going to let this go, he was too worried about how he was perceived by the people in his world.

That alone was always a cause for concern but Jimmy would sit it out, watch the main players and, when the time was right, he would decide what side he was on.

Until then, he would keep his own counsel.

But he knew one thing. This was not over, not by a long chalk.

'Is she still here?' Patrick's voice was loud and Lil, despite her anger at her husband's usual greeting to her mother, desperately wanted to laugh. Her mother had decided to take it in good spirit even though no one would believe he meant anything other than malice.

Annie sighed theatrically, her eyes rolling upwards and her bosom heaving, but she was masking a smile that was evident to anyone watching her.

The boys were amazed, as was their father. 'You feeling all the ticket, girl?'

Annie giggled like a schoolgirl and Patrick didn't know whether to laugh at the old bird's antics or be afraid. She had changed so dramatically over the last few months that he wondered if his old granny's tales of changelings did actually have some credence.

Pushing Lil into the kitchen, he whispered, 'She on fucking drugs, or what? I had just got used to her as an aggro merchant and now it's like she's a born-again Doris Day.'

Lil was laughing out loud now and Patrick was glad. It had been a while since she had been this happy, this carefree, and he sometimes felt guilty because he knew she worried about him.

'How you feeling, girl?'

She shrugged. 'Like shit. I tell you now, mate, I will be glad when I deliver this one. It's the hardest yet, and I ain't the type of person to make a drama out of nothing, as you know.'

Patrick hugged her to him, acknowledging the truth of her words.

She did look ill. She looked so pale and wan that he was worried about her. He would rather have her than another child, not that he would voice that opinion out loud. But his Lil looked rough and she knew it. 'Sit down and take the weight off, I'll get you something to eat.'

Annie did not come out to the kitchen and he was grateful for that. Normally, she would have been bustling about like a demented cow and making him feel like a spare part in his own home. He was well able for her and they both knew that, but she still enjoyed giving him a hard time.

The new, improved Annie was like a thorn in his side; he'd actually preferred her when she was a vindictive old bitch, but he had a feeling this was not the time to mention that.

Instead, he helped his wife make a few sandwiches and a pot of tea. That it was after midnight didn't really register. Patrick was a man who expected his woman to do his bidding whenever it suited him and wherever he wanted it. He had arrived home as if it was the norm for her to be making him a snack and listening to his day's events when everyone else was tucked up in bed. But that suited Lil. As tired and as heavy as she felt, Patrick was still her priority and this was what her life was all about; this selfish man and the children they had created between them. Lil was grateful to him every day of her life for making her feel wanted, valued and needed. He had given her a life she could only have dreamt of and she would repay him for her happiness in any way she could.

Lil loved these times, when they were together and the world was asleep and she could have her husband to herself for a few moments. She felt the love coming from him, and knew that, no matter what, she was his real priority, as were the children.

As she buttered bread and washed the salad, Lil felt the child kick. It was a strong kick and it made her double over. Patrick grabbed her and laughed loudly.

As he held her in his arms, she looked up into his handsome face and he said happily, 'Whoa, Lil. I felt that one meself, girl. Another Brodie for the pile, another one cooking and waiting to arrive into the world and take it by storm. We make good babies, Lil, the best. All our kids will be someone and will do something. We are truly blessed.'

Patrick looked into her eyes and saw the dark circles beneath them, the hollowness of her cheeks and realised that she really was ill this time. That this child was taking it out of her and making her ill and he had not even noticed until now. She waited for him to arrive back most nights and he accepted her getting up and cooking, talking or scheming with him and suddenly he felt the guilt of a man who had no real understanding of the pressure he put on the people around him. As he held Lil, he was ashamed that he had only just noticed how thin she was, she was all baby this time. His life outside the house was more real to him at times than the petty dramas his wife was left to deal with on a daily basis. He finally appreciated just how much she actually did for him, making sure that any worries he encountered were in no way the result of anything that might have happened in his home. As he heard the front door close, he knew his mother-in-law had left quietly and he knew even that was down to his Lil. She knew how much the woman aggravated him just by breathing the same air as he did. He also understood that the woman he hated and vilified made his wife's life much easier by her presence and by the little things she did. Even though there was always a price to be paid.

As he hugged his wife again he felt the full force of her sex and her goodness: a combination he knew he was terrified of. Like most men of his generation he knew he had not really given her the respect she was due as the mother of his children or as the love of his life. She had run his clubs at one time and she had done it well, had been respected for her acumen and her shrewdness. Now, thanks to him, she was back to square one, just a housewife, the receptacle for his children and she had accepted that as she had accepted everything else in her life. With dignity and without any kind of argument. In fact, Patrick was now feeling like a Class A bastard; he had practically forgotten about her and about everything that was important while he was sorting out his problems. He was finally feeling a serious guilt and, worse than that, he was looking at a woman who was at the end of her tether but who was still trying to hide her real condition from him so he would not feel that he should be supporting her in any way.

He kissed Lil gently on her lips, her eyes and all over her face as she stood patiently, allowing him access to her as she always had in the past.

His Lil was a brahma, she was a fighter and unless he looked closely, as he was now doing, she would tell him nothing of import about her, or his kids; she was always more interested in making sure he was without worries and that he was happy and content. But she looked terrible, and it was worrying him, because he couldn't say that without hurting her. All the times she had been pregnant before, she had been happy and healthy, and she had never once asked him for anything other than what he had been willing to offer her. And then he made sure he felt good about himself while he was doing it.

And the worst thing of all was, he had needed her tonight, more than ever, and it was only because of that he had seen just how much his chosen lifestyle had affected her and all those around her.

For the first time in years, he was seeing her life from her perspective, and it was not something he was proud of, or indeed something he wanted to dwell on. Instead, he sat her down on the nearest chair and made her relax while he waited on her for a change. But it was a double-edged sword; she knew it was an act on his part, and she pretended that he was doing it all for her.

To see Patrick looking at her with such sadness and such care was enough to make Lil want to smack him in the face. She hated that the fact that she was pregnant made Patrick see her as weak and needy, and it made her feel useless because he didn't see women as anything of value. Every time she was pregnant, Lil felt the enormity of what she could do, what she was capable of.

Yet this miracle of life was still treated by men as if it was nothing, even though they could never do it; they relied on the female of the species to produce for them. And they had to trust the person who was having the child for them because only the woman could be one hundred per cent sure the child inside them was actually their man's. The man had to take their word for it and if the man in question had chosen someone they didn't entirely trust, then that was a poor lookout for them all. Men who had chosen unwisely often had to puff and pant and threaten, to convince themselves that the child they were giving their name to, and paying for, was actually a blood relative. Patrick Brodie, she knew, had never had to worry about that, ever. And so, even as her husband felt sorry for her, Lil knew that she would always have the upper hand because she had put him first and she had always respected his work and looked after his offspring.

Lil was always aware of her husband's thoughts and feelings but she was not going to let on about that now. Like any woman worth her salt, she would milk this for all it was worth. Loving him was one thing but accepting this kind of treatment was something else. She was annoyed with him and the way he had suddenly decided to make out that he understood her life and the way she was feeling. It was an insult, on the one hand, and something she treasured, on the other. Anyway, she was determined to keep her trap shut in case she caused a row, but at times like this she wished he wouldn't act the big I Am.

That Patrick had only just noticed how she was feeling annoyed her but she smiled and allowed him to pet her and love her. After all, he was only a man and, as her mother pointed out at every available opportunity, they couldn't feel their way out of the womb unless a woman was pushing for them. Everything they did from then on was either to get a woman or to keep a woman. In some cases, they tried to do both things at once. When all was said and done, women ruled the fucking world.

As Patrick smiled at her with his smug face and enveloped her once more in his strong arms, she was more convinced of that fact than ever before.

Chapter Fourteen

Spider was feeling the heat and he was not a happy bunny. Cain was starting to irritate him on an hourly basis. The boy was somehow under the mistaken impression that he was more on the ball than his older brother; he was at the stage in life where a few quid and someone else's hard work seemed to make him feel he was the winner of Mastermind: chosen subject, villainy and drug dealing. He was now of the inflated opinion that he could run everything from a bar stool and that his brother, who had been kind enough to pave his way into the world of riches and money, had suddenly acquired the intellect of a Millwall supporter. It was laughable, but worse than that, it was also making Spider very frightened. And that was making him even more frightened.

Life was hard enough as it was without his little brother suddenly developing a death wish. It was as if Cain really thought that he was the brains of the outfit. The young man he himself had schooled and who he had grafted for suddenly seemed to think that he was the alpha male, the dog's gonads.

Cain really thought that he was a fool who would not suss out what was going on right under his nose and that his treachery would go unnoticed and, more to the point, unpunished. It would be funny if it wasn't so tragic.

The Williams brothers were pariahs in their community and what did Cain decide to do? Make them his bosom buddies at the expense of all he had worked for, all he had tried to achieve. Cain was suddenly prepared to overlook him, was prepared to forget everything in a heartbeat. He had no thought for anyone except himself and the shite he had decided to hang around with. Jasper the Rasta was bad enough, he had been hanging with him for a while now but, coupled with the Williams boys, it was a catastrophe of fucking Olympian proportions.

And Cain was so dense that he actually thought that he, Spider, his older brother, the man who had taught him everything he knew, had no idea where his brother's nights were spent and, worse still, what he was doing while on the missing list.

Spider had the unenviable task of telling Patrick the full story, although he had a feeling he already knew all about it. There wasn't much Patrick didn't know about, and what there was didn't merit his attention.

The Williams brothers had offered Cain the earth on a plate, convinced him they were what he needed to succeed and Cain had swallowed it all like the fucking useless no-neck he had become. It was this that was annoying Spider the most: that his Cain, his brother, could be that fucking stupid. Like he could trust white boys. White boys who were now lower down the food chain than the whores they were attempting to pimp and weaker than the drugs they were attempting to peddle in his name, and more treacherous than Judas Iscariot himself.

Cain had always been vain and that must have been how the Williams boys had got into him; it was the only thing he could think of to blame. They must have mug-bunnied for England to get him on their side.

The Williams brothers thought they were the new rude boys and, with Cain onside, they seemed to think they were getting away with it. Except that Cain was only accepted because of his association with Brodie and that, of course, was only because he himself had been onside with Patrick Brodie since day one.

Cain was using his largesse and his goodwill with Patrick to further his own ends. The Williams lot must think that they would be protected because of his connections and that he would make sure his brother would get away with his stupidity. The Williams brothers had taken him for a ponce as well as Cain; they had assumed he would look out for his brother and, to an extent, they had been right about that. But now they had stepped over the line; they had made him out for a fool and that he would not accept.

As much as Spider loved Cain, he had a reputation to uphold and that rep had never included whores or bores, a saying of his father's that had been proved true over and over again. The Williams boys were already starting to bore him and he had never really had much time for them anyway. Cain had finally pushed him too far and he had to retaliate to make him see what he had done. Spider needed to try to salvage something from the mess that had dropped into his lap.

Spider was determined to see that the accident the Williams brothers were going to have came sooner rather than later but did not include his brother in any way, shape or form. Cain was a fool; something he had never believed would have been a possibility until now. But he would save Cain's arse for no other reason than how his behaviour affected him; how he was perceived and how people judged him personally and professionally. Cain was not going to nause up all his hard work by making him look as if he had no fucking idea about what was going on in his own backyard.

In a short time, Cain had gone from someone he would trust with his life to someone he would not trust with his car keys. Quite a leap for two brothers who were proud of their filial affection and who had once believed that together they could rule the world. Their world at least. Spider was having to rethink everything about their relationship and their dealings and work out how best to limit any damage that might occur if Cain was cunt enough to completely disregard him and his teachings.

On top of everything else, his brother had broken the cardinal rule that he had drummed into him over and over again: never take your own products whether it was the women or the drugs. And, if what he had heard was true, ketamine and amphetamines were rife where the Williams brothers were concerned, and the brown was always on the table. They were complete wasters and, like all wasters, they had a habit of taking other people down with them. Cain was slipping further away from him with every day that passed by.

Spider would scrub his brother out in a heartbeat if he ever became a liability; he had always told Cain that. Spider had explained to him that the world they lived in did not allow for sentiment of any kind. Once you blotted your copybook you were out, even if you were family. Trust was all they had to rely on, the only thing that stood between them and jail. Once that trust was broken, no one was safe and that included baby brothers who had been lucky to have family who looked out for them and employed them in the first place; even if they were too stupid to understand that. It meant that even blood would be wiped out without hesitation for the greater good, for the guarantee of equilibrium once more. It was nothing personal as such, it was just the way that their world worked.

The big picture had always been the only picture as far as Spider was concerned and if that meant taking out family then so be it.

'What are you on about?'

Lil came out into the hallway; her mother's voice was loud enough to alert her to trouble and she knew, without asking, that whatever it was, it had been caused by her second son. It was strange but she had been expecting something like this, someone on her doorstep with hate in their heart and profanities on their lips.

It was almost a relief, as if her wicked thoughts needed to be proved true once and for all by an innocent bystander so she could admit the feelings she had towards her son had some kind of basis, some kind of concrete foundation.

Lil knew Lance was trouble and she knew that because she always let her mother sort it out; she was colluding with him, letting him get away with it. By turning a blind eye she had brought this woman to her door and she knew it had to be really serious for her to come here in the first place. Most people wouldn't have had the guts.

Today though, Pat Junior's party was on the horizon and her belly was heavier than ever before, and when her mother's voice was finally expressing her anger at the grandchild she usually defended with all her considerable strength, Lil had finally had enough.

'What's going on?' Lil's voice was hard, the words delivered with unusual vehemence, and the woman on her doorstep, Janie Callahan, was reminded of exactly who she was dealing with.

This was Lil Brodie, the wife of the man everyone around and about revered and feared in equal measure. Lil was a star in her own right and Janie liked her a lot, but today she knew she had to make some kind of a stand and that Lil was the person she needed to deal with, not her mother. Annie Diamond was a two-faced, disloyal ponce who only had the ear of the street because of her connections, because of who her daughter was married to. And she milked that for all it was worth; she was a terror of a woman who used her daughter's name for her own ends. Well, it was going to stop now because Janie was not going to stand for it any more.

Everyone else was terrified about making any kind of complaint about the Brodie kids and this was because Annie protected them, no matter what they did. Especially the main culprit, Lance. Lance walked on water as far as Annie was concerned and he was aware of the power his name gave him. Lance was a bully and bullies needed to be reined in sooner rather than later.

Janie Callahan was like any mother worth her salt; she was willing to take on anyone to protect her kids and if that meant taking on Annie, then she was going to do just that. If it meant taking on Lil, then she was willing to do that as well. But she knew in her heart that Lil was someone to be reasoned with, someone who had a bit of sense; at least she hoped that was the case.

Janie felt angry enough to take the lot of them on, even Patrick Brodie himself, if needs be. Her children needed to know that she was looking out for them and they needed to feel safe. Janie was determined to make sure that they were, no matter what the cost to her personally.

'Get in, Lil, you are not in any condition to deal with this.'

Lil saw the confusion on her mother's wrinkled face and then she shoved her none too gently out of the way. That gesture was enough to quieten her.

Lil had always liked Janie and she wanted to know why she was on her doorstep reading them the riot act. It had to be serious because Patrick Brodie was a byword around the streets and she knew just how hard it must have been for Janie to come knocking on her door. She sighed deeply, wondering what her son had done to merit this kind of reaction.

'Get out of the way, Mother. Come in, Janie, love, and tell me what on earth the problem is.' Lil's voice was calm and she stepped aside so that Janie could walk into her home; she needed to sort this out and she needed to know what had been the cause of the woman's upset. She wanted to know what that little fucker had been up to this time.

Lil was aware that she also had to make some sort of stand in front of her neighbours; it was how they lived and how they survived. So she stepped outside her front door and looked at the women in the street; they were all standing on their doorsteps waiting to see the outcome of this little drama whilst pretending they had no interest whatsoever. Lil stared at them all, one after the other, her eyes hard and her jaw clenched in anger. She knew how to play the game and she played it with a quiet contempt that was as insulting as it was threatening.

'Had your fucking look?' Her voice was harder than she intended but it had the desired effect. The women knew they had overstepped the mark and she knew they would be chary of repeating that mistake in the future.

Janie was now inside the house and, hearing Lil's angry voice, her earlier bravado was deserting her by the second.

Lil could feel the fear and the loathing coming off Janie Callahan in waves; she saw the widening of her eyes and the way she bit on her bottom lip. She knew that it had taken every ounce of courage Janie possessed to come and knock on this door. She knew that this was serious, that this was not about the usual childish arguments or the kids' pranks so prevalent in the street. Janie was on a mission and her mother's quietness was, in itself, enough to convince her that Lance was indeed the culprit and that, as she had thought earlier, he had been seriously out of order.

Lil was frightened of hearing what Lance had done, and yet she knew it was inevitable that she would be regaled about his latest misdemeanour.

'Make a cuppa, Mum.'

She smiled at Janie and it took every ounce of courage that she possessed. Then she said quietly and with a friendliness she didn't actually feel any more, 'Come through to the lounge, Janie, and let's sort this out, shall we?'

Janie nodded in relief but she saw the way Annie looked at her and knew she had just made herself an enemy for life.

Cain was out of his box and his smile was as phoney as his annoyance was real. Leonard Barker was never happy at any time, but giving this young man the news that his brother was searching for him all over the Smoke was making him even more depressed than usual. Cain had to be some kind of mug; Leonard would give his eye-teeth to have someone on board with him like Spider. But Cain was so blitzed he just shrugged it off.

Leonard walked from the room; he had done his chore for the day and he wanted to distance himself from this man as fast as possible.

Having heard the bad news, the Williams brothers were scattering. They were suddenly off for the evening, leaving Cain alone even though they knew he was not fit to use the toilet without help. But that was the Williams boys all over, they seemed to enjoy taking this boy down with them. And Cain himself was galloping towards obscurity and censure as if it was the only thing he wanted in the world.

Leonard Barker was collecting glasses out the front of the Speiler when he saw Patrick Brodie slip through the door. There were a few regular customers at the bar and Leonard noticed how Patrick was being observed without anyone actually looking directly at him. He waved nonchalantly at no one in particular and everyone in there greeted him heartily. Leonard felt his heart sink down to his boots and wished that his boss wasn't such a lazy cunt so he would not have to be the person overlooking this pile of shite. He would be glad when Cain finally got his comeuppance.

Patrick nodded at him in a friendly way; no one would ever guess at his anger or his dismay that it had come to this. He opened his arms as if in supplication and Leonard Barker nodded almost imperceptibly towards the back room knowing that Brodie would have all the information he needed before he would have even deigned to walk through the doorway. It was a game that had been played out over and over again for years and the only changes were the players in the little soap opera. This time though, a renowned lunatic, Patrick Brodie, had seen fit to sort his problems out in public and Leonard knew it could go either way for him because of that. He would either be the villain of the piece or the knight in shining armour, depending on the outcome.

Leonard just wanted his wage in his back pocket and fuck the dramas that came and went with a depressing regularity. He was further dismayed to see two huge men come into the bar with baseball bats neatly wrapped in red insulating tape. When the dirty deed was done they could unwrap the tape and burn it, thereby leaving the bats in pristine condition for further use and any evidence as ash.

Two of the regulars at the bar drank up and walked out quickly without saying their usual good-humoured goodbyes and this seemed to be the sign for a general exodus, as was expected. No one questioned anything; the atmosphere said enough and no one wanted to get caught up in the situation here, and who could blame them?

Patrick smiled then and Leonard poured him a large Scotch before shutting the bar flap and leaving the place himself. He would sit it out in the cold and wait for them to vacate the premises before going back inside. Brodie owned the bar, even though he didn't run it, and Leonard knew that Cain was about to find out just what owning something or, more to the point, someone really meant.

Leonard sat outside in his little Hillman Imp and rolled himself a cigarette; his hands were trembling and that annoyed him. He started up the car and pushed a cassette into his eight-track system. Elvis Presley's voice filled the void around him and he closed his eyes and wished to Christ that he too felt lonesome tonight.

'What's wrong then, Janie?'

Janie sighed heavily. Her earlier bravado had deserted her and she was perched on the edge of the sofa with a dry mouth and a heart that was beating so loud it was almost drowning out her own thoughts.

Lil was aware of the woman's discomfort and she smiled once more, feeling phoney because a large part of her didn't want to hear what this poor woman had to say.

'Lance is bullying my kids, Lil. I can't sit back and let him, it's gone too far this time.' It was out, it was said and the world had not come to an end.

'In what way?'

Lil was asking all the right questions, she knew, but the truth was that she could have written Janie's script for her. But what Janie answered was nothing like what she had expected and she had, as always where Lance was concerned, expected the worst. She was stunned as she listened to the woman talk.

'Eight stitches in the head and that was when Lance pushed her off the bus…'

Janie trailed off as she saw the shock on Lil's face. She had assumed that Lil had heard about it. It was the talk of the school; not that they were willing to do anything about it. But what could Janie do? This had to be resolved because her kids were in mortal fear of even leaving the house.

'Her? Did you say her?'

Janie nodded. Her long face was even more worried now as she realised that Lil really had no idea about what had happened and she had gone so white she looked on the verge of fainting. Lil's huge belly and swollen legs were suddenly all Janie could focus on and she saw that Lil Brodie was ill. She was also in a state of total shock at the news she had just imparted to her. She guessed that Annie made sure Lil didn't get any information until after she had edited it to her own satisfaction.

'My Lisa is only six and he pushed her off the bus; she landed in the road on her barnet and the hospital said she was lucky she wasn't hurt really badly. Lil, I don't want to put this in your lap; I can see you are ready to drop but I can't let this go on. Lance has tortured them and he mouths me off if I say anything. He effs and blinds at me. I don't want to cause any trouble for you… I don't want Patrick after me, but if that's what it takes… It's either this or I have to move and I ain't got the wherewithal to do that as I am sure you know… Me old man's banged up.'

Janie's voice was breaking now with sheer relief that she had said it out loud. Lil looked awful and Janie was sorry for her because she could see the woman genuinely had no idea about any of it. If she had not seen her reaction with her own eyes she would never have believed it.

Lil was digesting everything she had just heard and was now trying to make some kind of sense of it. She was stiff with anger and humiliation; this woman honestly believed that she had known of her son's antics and that she had allowed those things to happen without any kind of redress. Did everyone else think that? Did they assume that she didn't care? Did people think she condoned his behaviour?

She was mortified because she knew that it was her fault if people did think that about her because she had no interest in the boy or in what he did or didn't do. She had no trouble believing what the woman was telling her, and she knew that she should at least be trying to justify his behaviour, make allowances for him, at least try to defend him, but she had no intention of doing anything like that. Instead, she jumped up and bellowed her son's name out with all the force she could muster.

The kids had shot into the bedrooms when she had shouted at her mother and as they trooped back downstairs now she could feel the heat of humiliation and shame wash over her face and neck. The child seemed to move inside her with a sickening wrench and she had trouble staying on her feet.

Pat Junior and the girls were in the hallway and Lance was behind them, his eyes wide and, as always, displaying an innocence she knew he had never really possessed. He was a devil in disguise and she flew at him with a speed that belied the heaviness of her aching body. All she wanted to do was hurt him to make him realise exactly what he did to others; she wanted him to feel the same emotions as his victims.

Lance tried to escape her wrath and she grabbed at his ankle as he attempted to run back up the stairs. She dragged him by his legs and his screams were loud and piercing but she ignored them. She pulled him into the front room and flung him on to the floor. He lay there panting in fright and she saw the terror in his eyes as she shrieked at him. Her mother was trying to calm her down and she grabbed the front of Annie's carefully buttoned cardigan and thrust her back out into the hallway, nearly knocking her over in the process. The children were all staring at her as if she had gone mad. She didn't feel like she had gone mad though, she felt as if she had finally woken up from a bad dream. She felt as if she was free at last.

Annie's voice was cajoling her now, she was trying to calm her down. Instead it made her anger swell inside her like a canker that was about to burst.

'Lil, calm down, love. He wouldn't do anything like that. He's a little fucker, granted, but he wouldn't do that. They pick on him…'

Lil shook her head in despair at her mother's words and, placing her hands on her ample hips, she said with derision and contempt, 'Oh, Mum, fuck off, will you? He could murder all the neighbours in broad daylight with an axe and you'd say they must have deserved it. That they must have done something to him.'

'You going to take her word over mine then?'

Lil saw the hurt on her mother's face and the frown lines etched there so she looked old before her time and she actually felt pity for her. Annie was almost delusional where Lance was concerned; it was as if she saw a different boy to the one everyone else did. She held herself in check knowing it was pointless talking to the woman before her, a woman she didn't even like most of the time, but who she had thought she needed.

'Take the kids upstairs, Mother, and don't fucking come down again until I tell you.'

Annie was beside herself with grief for the boy she could see no wrong in.

'Nanny Annie, please, Nanny Annie, don't leave me with her…' Lance was choking on his sobs now and even with the tears running down his handsome face, the face that was so like his father's, and his pitiable crying, Lil still couldn't find it in her heart to feel any kind of pity for him.

He tried to bolt from the room then, to get away from her, and she grabbed him by the hair and dragged him back inside. Then, slamming the front room door closed, she untangled the arms that were now desperately trying to grip her round her waist to make her cuddle him and she laid into him with all the strength she possessed.

Her blows were heavy and carefully delivered. He curled into a ball on the floor so she grabbed him once more by his hair and, holding him upright, she gave him a beating that was as vicious as it was overdue. He was bleeding and she could smell the fear coming off him in waves but it just added to her anger and her need to teach him a lesson that would be remembered his whole life.

She could hear herself shouting at him and in her rage she couldn't even comprehend what she was saying to him: 'You fucker, you bullying, wicked fucker…'

Lil was screaming the same words over and over again and Janie sat and watched the scene before her with an awe that she would say later was due to the fact that Lance was still denying any wrongdoing even after his mother had opened up his eyebrow. She would tell people in a hushed voice that Lil Brodie was like a maniac, that she had doled out a hiding many a man would have been loath to be on the wrong end of. She would tell anyone who asked her that Lil Brodie was a decent woman who had administered a beating to that little bastard to teach him the error of his ways. She had paid him out tenfold for her girl's injuries and without realising it, Janie set out Lil's reputation as a battler once and for all.

Lil was crying now, a low groaning cry of despair and disappointment and long strings of snot were hanging from her nose as she knelt over the boy, and, forcing down the urge to crack his skull open with her clenched fist, she said to him, 'I'm on to you, boy, and you will get this or worse every time you step out of line. You fucking bully, you rotten, stinking bully.'

Lance stared up at the woman he alternately loved and hated and he said through his tears, 'It wasn't me, Mum, it was Patrick… I swear… I swear to God…'

Lance was still lying to her, still trying to worm his way out of it. He had not a scrap of shame or pride inside him. Lil pulled his head up towards her face with a force so great that his teeth crashed together loudly enough to make Janie Callahan jump. Lance could feel her breath on his face once more as she bellowed at him.

'You liar, you are still fucking lying. Tell me the truth, you mad bastard, tell me the truth or I swear to God I'll fucking bury you!'

She was staring into his eyes and he knew then that she meant every word she said. She saw the lids of his eyes come down like blinds on a window and knew he was changing tack. The knowledge depressed her even as it worried her. He was such a strange child and now she had acknowledged that fact to herself and to Janie Callahan, she felt her fear of him evaporate.

'It was me. I'm sorry, Mum… I'm sorry… She was looking at me… She thinks she is better than us she does.'

The whine in Lance's voice, and his constant lying, was too much for her. What the hell had she bred? Where the hell did this child come from? Lil threw him away from her then as if the effort of touching him was anathema. Then, holding on to the arm of the sofa, she pulled herself up from the floor with difficulty and Janie quickly leapt up to help her. She had been silent as she had watched Lil take matters into her own hands. Before, she would have laid out money that Lil had been aware of her son's reign of terror; how wrong she had been. And how relieved she was now that her kids would finally be free of the little boy who looked like an angel but had the vocabulary of a sailor.

Lance was battered and bloody and Janie could feel no remorse for what had happened to him. Like his own mother, she felt only distaste and relief that he had finally got his comeuppance. She had enjoyed seeing him squirm and it bothered her that a young child could stir up such feelings inside her.

'Get out of my sight.' He dragged himself up slowly and Lil could see that she had gone too far, that she had really hammered him, but she didn't care. There was a kink in Lance's nature and she was going to iron it out if it killed her.

When Lance was gone from the room, Lil sighed and, lighting a cigarette, she pulled on it deeply. Blowing out the smoke noisily, she said sadly, 'I am so sorry, Janie. I knew nothing about it. Is the little one all right?'

Janie nodded. Taking the proffered cigarette, she lit it and said, 'He could have killed her, Lil, and it was that which brought me round here. I don't want any trouble and you know that. But my kids are mortally afraid of him. Not a day goes by but he is at them…'

She was crying again now. The sympathy that was in Lil's eyes made her break down.

'Where was my Pat while all this was going on?' She was suddenly afraid that her eldest son was a part of it all.

Janie shrugged and wiped at her eyes with a grubby tissue, the cigarette stains on her fingers showing just how bad her nerves had become. Looking at her with the cigarette dangling from her lips and the tear-stained face that was blotchy and swollen, Lil saw her own life if she wasn't careful. Lance was capable of making her into the wretch she saw before her and she was determined not to let that happen.

'He puts a stop to him if he catches him. He's a good boy, Lil.'

The words were like a balm to Lil and she sighed again, heavier this time, before bellowing once more at the top of her voice, 'Don't you dare go up to him, Mother…'

She got out of the chair again and, as she walked from the room, Janie could hear Annie Diamond arguing with her in hushed tones.

Janie looked around her at the lovely home that Lance lived in and she wondered at a boy who had everything laid on a plate and who still was going to the bad. The carpet was new and reached all the walls, the furniture was expensive and comfortable, and even the ashtrays were coloured glass, shaped like big blue fishes. A colour TV stood in the corner and velvet curtains adorned the windows. It was like something from a magazine or a shop window. Yet she wouldn't trade places with poor Lil for all the money in the world.

'I mean it, Mum, you leave him to stew in his own juices.'

Annie was agitated and upset. Lil was amazed at the way her mother felt for this child of hers, considering the woman had never once shown her so much as a scrap of affection while she had been growing up. No Christmases, no birthdays, nothing; it was as if she had not existed. Now she was willing to argue for a boy who had thrown a six-year-old child off a moving bus. As she pushed her mother none too gently down the stairs, she said in a deep whisper, 'Fuck off home, Mother, and leave me to sort this out.' Annie was beside herself as she said quickly, 'You ain't going to tell Patrick are you?'

Her voice was high with fear and Lil was aware that she was shaking with emotion; her mother, on whom she would have bet her last penny that no real emotion had ever existed inside her body.

'Fucking right, I am telling Patrick. That child needs sorting out once and for all and I am going to make it my business to see that happens.'

Annie was shaking her head like a wet dog, and then she shrieked: 'He was only being a boy. All kids do silly things, Lil. Please don't tell Pat about this. Pat will kill him; you're bad enough but Pat don't know his own strength…'

'Go home, Mother. Leave me and my family alone. And while we are talking about Pat, he will blame you for all this anyway, so make yourself scarce before he aims you out the door once and for all.'

Lil went up the stairs then and looked in on Lance, he was lying on his bed sobbing and alone and she was reminded of how little he was really. But his plight still didn't move her in any way. He was looking at her now with his big blue eyes and she saw the cunning behind them and shivered. He was a vindictive little bugger and she wondered where he had got that from. It had to be from her mother. Annie could be cold, she knew, and she was going to make a point of curtailing the time she spent with him.

When this baby arrived, she was going to take control of the reins once more, and she was going to watch him like a hawk. She never wanted to hear another story about him and his hate-fuelled antics ever again. This all stopped today. She was determined to make Lance finally appreciate that all his actions had consequences.

Closing the door on the sobbing boy, she went into Pat's room where the wide-eyed girls were sitting on his bed holding hands tightly as Pat Junior read them a story.

'Is he all right, Mum?'

Lil nodded. She was unable to trust herself to speak to a boy who was worried about his brother even though all his troubles were self-inflicted and even though it would ultimately make his own life easier if he didn't have to look out for him constantly. Pat Junior's loyalty was astounding really, considering who he was wasting it on.

That her children had been frightened by her actions was evident in the quiet around her and the fact that the girls didn't run to her as usual for a hug; they just stared at her as if she was a stranger in their midst.

Going back downstairs, she made a cup of tea for her and Janie; and a friendship was born that day that would last the two women a lifetime.

If Lance had done nothing else in his short life, he had brought these two women together as friends.

Cain was watching warily as Patrick circled him holding a chair leg in his hands he had retrieved from the debris of the office. Cain had been beaten to within an inch of his life and he had put up a good fight; in fact, Patrick and his cohorts were secretly impressed. The place was a shambles but Cain was taking it like a man and that stood him in good stead with his protagonists. His defence had surprised them somewhat with its ferocity, after all the drugs he'd taken.

As Cain sat watching them through swollen eyes he waited for the next assault that he knew would be forthcoming sooner rather than later. The weight of the weapon in Patrick's hands was evident in the way he was handling it; it was cumbersome, and the straight edges could do a lot of damage to skull and bone. And even though Cain was out of the game in comparison to the three men around him, he was with it enough to know that he was still in for a rough night. He was running on pure adrenaline now, unsure of exactly what was going on; he had no idea why Brodie was even there. Cain was unable to function properly, he couldn't even remember what this was all about.

The ketamine was kicking in once more and he felt the sweat envelop his body. He could smell it, a dank staleness that, until his foray into the world of the drug user, as opposed to the drug dealer, would have made him feel physically ill. The tannic taste of blood was in his mouth and the cocktail of drugs in his system was making him feel invincible. He was once more of the opinion that he could fight his way out of the room. The ketamine, a powerful horse-tranquilliser, was once more rushing through his system and mixed with the amphetamines he had been snorting with it for the past eight hours, it was confusing him. His mind was raving once more and the paranoia was creeping up on him. The sweat was running down his face and blurring his already limited vision. He could see the men looking at him, could make out their features as if he was looking through water; they were talking to each other and he knew it was about him. But he couldn't understand what they were saying. They were cunting him though, he was convinced of that, taking him for a mug and they expected him to sit and take it?

Cain shook his head and laughed at their foolishness, that they thought he wouldn't punish them for their outrageous insults to him? That he would swallow this kind of treatment? He screamed and, using his considerable strength, he jumped up from the seat and launched himself at Patrick Brodie. He was almost feral and his teeth were bared as he attempted to bite his face, tear off an ear or rip off his nose. The attack was as fast as it was unexpected and Patrick brought the chair leg down on his head and body over and over again until he finally stopped trying to rise up from the floor. He lay there, a bloody mess, his mouth open as he gasped for breath while still attempting to mutter obscenities and threats at his attackers.

Patrick stared down at him in amazement and, pushing him on to his back, he placed the chair leg on a nearby desk. Then he lit himself a cigarette with a calmness that belied his real feelings.

Looking at the two men with him, he said quietly, 'Out of his nut or what?'

The bigger of the two men shrugged. 'That ketamine will do it every time, mate; sends them off their shopping trolleys.'

Patrick nodded sagely and went out into the empty bar.

He took the drink offered him by Leonard who had slipped back into the club a few minutes before and he gulped at the whisky, enjoying the burn as it went down into his belly. The fire of it was giving him the jolt he needed.

Leonard replenished his glass immediately and then he poured out two lemonades for the others. He knew that, unless Patrick said otherwise, soft drinks were all that would be allowed to them.

They sipped their drinks and chatted amongst themselves in the carnage of the trashed club as if nothing was amiss.

'Is the juke box still working?'

Pat knew that Leonard would have taken stock of everything that would need replacing in nanoseconds; he had done it enough times before and when he nodded, he said happily, 'Stick on "Hotel California" will you? I fucking love that record.'

Leonard did as he was asked and then he set about cleaning up the place as best he could, joining in with the ribald conversation at the bar and explaining to any punters who came knocking that the place would be closed for a few days on account of it being redecorated.

No one questioned that this place was redecorated four or five times a year on average. Thanks to long opening hours, excessive alcohol consumption, betting, women, football and occasionally religion, all these were things that seemed to make men capable of murder.

It was still early evening and so Leonard was hopeful of getting an early night for a change. As he always said, one man's loss was another man's gain. He hoped his old woman had partaken of her weekly bath and hair wash, he was in the mood for a quick flash and a bacon sandwich.

Cain was conveniently forgotten. He had been ironed out, straightened and sorted.

Chapter Fifteen

Jasper Jessup was a tall, angular man who hailed from the Caribbean, though where exactly no one seemed to know, least of all him.

He was a user. He used everyone he came into contact with but he did it with such aplomb and such good humour that it was hard to take too much offence. People just dropped away from him and he was very good-natured about it, so people forgot his bad points and hailed him if they saw him around.

However, he was in the know with what was left of the Williams family and this was mainly because he could always be relied on to ferret out half-decent grass or a banger girl, aka someone who was up for it with anybody, anywhere, anytime; for a price of course. More importantly, he could also find out what was happening on the pavements of south London.

He had his phoney Jamaican accent off to a tee and his tall, thin body had a certain elegance that, combined with his dreads, gave him the air of a proud man, of a trustworthy man. This had stood him in good stead for many years, plus, as an added bonus, he had a certain panache about him; a scruffiness that suited his rangy body and put people off their guard. On certain days, he took it upon himself to wear the Rasta colours and, like a walking flag of Ethiopia, he would wander around Brixton market like a king. He would hail everyone he saw while toking on a large twist, his gold teeth glinting in the sunlight. He was well known there; he was part of the local colour. The younger men, especially, were drawn to him with his tales of urban strife and the battle of the black man. Of course, once they realised that he talked bollocks, borrowed money off them too often and smoked their weed faster than they could procure it, he was dropped as they gravitated towards the other males in their community, the proper role models. It was a natural progression, a rite of passage for the teens he attracted, who imagined that being seen with an older man like Jasper would be seen as a measure of their own burgeoning manhood. Until, of course, they saw him for the predator he really was.

They actually learned valuable lessons from him though: that ponces came in all shapes and sizes and, also, that their mothers were usually right in their opinions of the people they suddenly wanted to spend their time with. He had ruffled more than a few maternal feathers over the years and he retreated when the time was right because he was too shrewd to ever push his luck too far. The lads just faded away and when he saw them around, he grinned and laughed with them, always the picture of friendly affability.

And such was Jasper's easiness that they didn't hold him using them against him. He was just Jasper and he was all right; good for a story and a laugh in the Beehive on a Friday night. He was a local character and people tolerated him even though he was like a cancer in the community; he wised up the police when he had to and again his easiness, his smoothness, was why no one had ever questioned the fact that he had never once had a tug. He'd never even been held on a Sus, which was remarkable because the Sus law was designed so the police could pull you in just because they thought you looked suspicious. It was a bonus for the filth as they had a perfect excuse to run in anyone they liked, just for the hell of it. A young man could be standing at a bus stop waiting for a bus, and he could legally be arrested, searched, and charged with basically anything that happened to pop into the overactive imaginations of the arresting officers.

A good hiding was often on the cards as well; it was the police equivalent of in for a penny, in for a pound. From the West Midlands Crime Squad to the Met, the police had almost complete autonomy over anyone they took a shine to. As every person in the know was aware, for every person fitted up for a crime, even if they were a known criminal who had broken the law on numerous occasions and could not be held to account because the police had no evidence, once they were fitted up it meant the real perpetrator of the crime was still at large.

Sus was a law that had been passed with full knowledge of how it could, and most certainly would be abused by a large majority of the police force. People like Jasper actually needed the Sus law to survive. All he had to do was hint at someone's involvement in a crime and the law guaranteed they were pulled in without any kind of evidence whatsoever. Jasper actually had a razor-sharp brain, which he tried to hide with his foolishness and his stupid talk. But he had been responsible for a lot of arrests and he was a predator of the worst kind, whether it was impressionable young girls or the grown men he used to fill his wallet. People were relaxed around him because he acted far more stoned than he actually was a lot of the time. People were easy around him and talked about things that were best kept private. Jasper listened and he learned a lot about everything; he found this useful in his everyday dealings with the world.

Spider had once pointed out to him that he was a professional Rasta and so the Bob Marley hat and the crooked smile Jasper wore had never fooled him. To Spider, Jasper was the kind of black man that gave the rest of them a bad name. He was a poster boy Rasta and his own authenticity was what had alerted Spider to the fact he was a fake. Spider was the one man Jasper was wary of because he saw him for what he really was and this bothered him.

Jasper had no regular income, legal or otherwise; he lived off his considerable wits and it was his knack of finding opportunities that had led him to the Williams brothers and his latest earner.

Jasper had ingratiated himself with Cain and had introduced him to the finer points of smoking, from a twist to a pipe. He had helped the Williams brothers get involved with Spider's little brother and he was proud of his part in bringing down the arrogant little shit. The Williams boys were a few coconuts short of a palm tree, as his mother used to say, but they were also emerging from their Brodie-imposed exile better than he would have given them credit for. Now that Cain was onside they were in a unique position because Spider would not let anything drastic happen to his little brother. At least that's what this crowd of goons believed, anyway. Jasper wasn't so sure; Spider had seen through him as if he was a pane of glass on their first meeting and not many people were that astute. Shame Spider hadn't used the same instinct with his little brother but then family had to really piss you off before you outed them.

The Williams family were close, as close as their kind could be anyway, and they were paying him well for his contribution to their cause. Now he was sitting there with them, fooling them all with his smiles, his gold teeth and his thick Jamaican accent, all the while planning how best he could exploit them or utilise the knowledge that he was gathering to his own advantage. They were loose-lipped and he knew everything about them.

He began to build another joint knowing that if Brodie was looking for Cain then their days were numbered. Spider would have to swallow and he had a feeling that once Brodie had heard all he had garnered over the last few weeks he would not be a happy bunny.

The last few weeks had been a revelation to him and, as the boys talked, he listened while building his spliff and singing 'Exodus' in a low voice, sounding more like Marley than the man himself. The Williams boys were taking the piss out of him periodically, thinking he didn't realise it, and he took it with good humour as always. Let them think he was a fucking moron. He was only sorry this lot didn't appreciate how he was playing them. But they would eventually, when it was too late, of course.

As Jasper sipped his rum and smoked his spliff, he was grinning and laughing, while wondering how this shower of shite managed to find their own arseholes without a fucking detailed map, a compass and a torch.

'Calm down, Lil. Lance what?'

Lil sighed in exasperation as she tried to explain the situation to Patrick, but she knew he was having a lot more trouble than her believing it.

'He threw a six-year-old girl off a moving bus. She had to have eight stitches in her head and she was terrified out of her life.'

She sighed heavily at the shock on his face, knowing it was mirrored in her own. 'He has been bullying the family for yonks, the little fucker. I think you had better go and look at him and see what I've done to him before we talk any more, OK?'

There was something in her voice that alerted Patrick to the truth of what she was saying yet he didn't want to believe it.

'Lil, is this a wind up?' But he knew it wasn't. He knew she was serious.

'What do you think, Pat? That I thought I'd have a joke with you about something this serious? He nearly killed a little girl. Fucking funny is it? It's a big joke, is it? Only I ain't laughing, am I?'

Patrick took the stairs two at a time and went into his son's room. Lance was asleep. He looked like the victim of a train crash; he was swollen and bruised all over, his cut eyebrow had scabbed over and none of the blood had been wiped away. He knew that Lil had left him there without seeing to him and this bothered him more than the beating the child had taken; it said a lot for her feelings. He felt anger welling up inside him; the boy looked so little, so frail, and with his body curled into a ball and his hands placed under his cheek, he looked like an angel. He put out a hand to touch him but stopped himself. The boy was better off asleep. He was battered like a Friday night cod as it was.

Lance was sleeping deeply, as if he had no cares in the world. Patrick had a feeling this would not be the first time this child of his would be taken to task in his life and it pained him to admit that to himself, but he had always been a realist. Lance was the product of his own two parents, and that, mixed with Lil's family tree, meant the boy didn't stand a chance. Selfish and greedy, Lance was everything Patrick despised; he seemed to have all the bad traits of his ancestors and none of the good ones. Lance's only saving grace was how he was with his little sisters. How protective Lance was of them gave Patrick hope for this boy's future.

He forced down the urge to give the boy another hiding. He was sorry, not because Lance was battered and bruised, but because he felt no pity for him. Lance's eyelids were flickering, he was dreaming. Patrick knew that any other child would have been awake, would have been far too upset to sleep. He stared down at his son, wondering what he had bred. He knew that at some time in the future this boy would be an asset in any criminal undertaking but that as a child he was an anomaly. He found his dislike of his child was growing by the second. He wanted to drag him from the bed and make him understand just what he had done, but he knew that if he touched him, he would not be responsible for his actions. He needed to calm down first. The boy had been spoiled by his granny since he had first drawn breath and she had played a big part in all this. He had to blame her for a part of it, otherwise he would go mad. Well, he was going to sort the vindictive old bitch out. He needed to blame someone for his son's twisted nature and she was the prime suspect as far as he was concerned. Listening to the boy's soft breathing he knew he had to get away from him, to leave this room and all it entailed.

He crept into the other kids' rooms; the girls, as always, were asleep in one bed, a mass of plump limbs and baby sweat. Their lovely, long blonde hair was damp from their body heat and their rosy cheeks made his heart swell with love for them. They were good-looking children. All his kids were handsome and he was proud of them; at least he had been, until now. Kissing them lightly he went to his eldest boy's room and, opening the door, he saw he was awake as if waiting for him to come home. He guessed this was exactly what his son had been doing.

'All right, Dad?' Pat Junior smiled tremulously at his father.

Patrick sat on the edge of his bed and smiled back. 'What happened, son?'

Patrick knew he would get the truth from him, Pat Junior was as honest as the day was long.

'Mum was really cross, she went mad.'

Pat nodded. 'I can see that, mate, but she had reason to be, by the sounds of it.'

The boy reluctantly nodded in agreement; as always he was trying to look out for Lance.

'But he didn't mean it, Dad. He does bad things but he don't really mean to, he just doesn't think…'

Patrick loved this son of his; he knew that he was still trying to defend his brother even though Lance wasn't worth this loyalty. Lance had no loyalty or respect for anyone but himself.

'But he did hurt Maureen Callahan, Dad. I heard about it at school and I asked him about it. He denied it.'

Patrick nodded once more, the shame washing over him and leaving him feeling dirty.

'But you knew it was true, didn't you?'

Pat Junior nodded again as his eyes searched his father's for a hint of approval about how he was handling the problems his brother seemed to bring him on a daily basis. He didn't want to say outright that he had believed it from the off and that nothing his brother did surprised him.

'You're a good boy, son. Now relax and I'll talk to your mother and get it sorted. This is a serious thing that Lance has done, you do understand that, don't you?'

'I know. I felt sick when I heard. She could have been killed.'

Patrick shrugged, a nonchalant shrug that took all his willpower because he was going to lie and he knew it was important that his boy believed what he was going to say so he didn't feel any more guilt over his brother and his actions.

'This isn't your fault, mate. You couldn't have prevented this. Lance has a mind of his own and when I am finished with him he will wish he had never laid eyes on that girl or her family. This is not your problem, OK? You don't need to worry about this any more.'

Patrick looked into the face so like his own and wished he didn't have to deal with all this now. He had enough on his plate without a fucking Looney Tunes for a son. His actions seemed so far-fetched that he had thought it would turn out to be exaggerated or a big mistake. Now he knew that Lance was capable of anything. He was the child everyone was frightened of. Lance was a coward and it was that which made Patrick so angry; he had somehow bred a coward who had been able to bully his way through life because he bore the name Brodie.

Now he had to make some kind of sense out of this for Lil's sake and for this boy here, who he knew would be Lance's buffer to the world, until even he couldn't take it any more. He stroked Pat Junior's hair, feeling the thickness of it. The fact his son hadn't answered him was enough to make him change the subject and try to bring some normality into this twilight world the boy seemed to have stumbled into. Violence was his game and now it had crept into his home. All the years he had feared it encroaching on his family and he was stunned to find that its arrival had been heralded by one of his own children. This wasn't a boyish prank, it was a cold-blooded act of hate and as a man who used his strength and intimidation to earn a living, that was a very frightening thought. Controlled violence was one thing, as long as it didn't involve civilians and it was kept in their world. But the more he thought of his son's act, the more he knew he needed to be home more often than he was. Lance needed to be watched over and taught right and wrong. He needed a strong hand to guide him into the future.

Patrick forced a smile and said in a cheerful whisper, 'Looking forward to your party?'

Patrick Junior nodded but the pain and fear were still in his eyes and Patrick knew he couldn't do this now; he had too much on his mind. Now that Lance's actions had finally sunk in he needed time to digest and cogitate on what the outcome should be.

'Come on you, get to sleep. Let me sort this lot out, eh?'

The relief in the boy's eyes was evident; the problem had been taken away from him. Patrick felt guilt weighing on him heavily for leaving this child to shoulder so much of the burden in the household. He was going to have to get out of the game; delegate more of the day-to-day running of the businesses. He was getting past all the skulduggery that constituted his main graft, his earned wage. If the truth be told, he was finally getting fed up with it all.

The Williams brothers should have been taken out from the off and because of Spider and his low-life brother, he had left the situation for too long, all the while expecting Spider to sort it out. Well he hadn't, not in time for him anyway. He had let it go on and that had set off alarm bells. Spider had an achilles heel, as they all did to an extent, but where Patrick would take out a family member if the offence warranted it, Spider couldn't. Cain was on his last legs and so was Spider if he played up. He had given him ample opportunity to sort the lairy little fucker out. If Cain had been his brother the Williams brothers would have been warned off long ago. Cain would then have had his displeasure at the association pointed out to him with such force that he would have broken off any kind of friendship tout de suite.

Then he came home to another fucking war. Life was a bastard, there was no two ways about it. This son of his, who he loved more than life itself, was already carrying the weight of his siblings on his shoulders and he knew that if anything should happen to him, the boy would be carrying the mantle for this family long before he was due.

'Go to sleep, son. I'll sort it all out. Stop worrying, OK?'

Patrick Junior nodded once more and in the half-light Patrick saw the tiredness that was etched on the boy's face. This child was already old before his time, he realised now. He saw himself in this boy and Pat Junior was emulating his own life in the way he tried to keep the peace with everyone. He had learned to be a diplomat at a young age as well and had spent his childhood sneaking around his parents, trying not to annoy them. They had walked away from him regularly and left him to fend for himself without a second's thought and that had been hard. Now his son was in a similar position, trying to keep his brother on track and trying to be the man of the house for his mother, for Lil, who was weak with pregnancy and unsure of what to do about Lance and his antics. He sat there until Pat dropped off. Then he smoothed his son's thick black hair away from his brow and sighed heavily.

He went back downstairs into the neat and tidy kitchen and saw that his wife, his lovely Lil, was still standing where he had left her.

Took, Lil, you're right. Lance is definitely not all the ticket, but what can we do?'

She shrugged. 'I don't know Pat, that's just it. What the fuck do we do about him? I talked Janie Callahan down and she had the sense to keep the Old Bill out of it, so everyone thinks the child fell but the point is, he nearly killed her and he was still denying it, the little fucker.'

That Lil was at the end of her tether was evident. She was near to tears, and, holding her gently to his chest, he kissed her softly, smelling Vosene shampoo and the sweet aroma of her scent. She favoured Blue Grass and it lingered on her skin. It reminded him that soon she would be brought to bed with another child and would be his lovely Lil once more. No more backache, no more restless nights and no more upset because he was going to sort this out for her and give her peace of mind back.

'I do try with him, but he is hard work, Patrick. He lies, he steals, he causes upset everywhere he goes. Now it turns out he is a bully and all. Bullying girls, fucking little kids… What must people think of us, eh? He's getting away with murder and he knows that he can because of you. This has to stop, Patrick. You have to sort him out… I can't do this any more.'

She was sobbing now and for his Lil to cry meant she was more than just upset and he understood how she was feeling because he was having trouble keeping a lid on his own temper at the moment.

'Don't get upset, think of this new baby…'

She pushed him away from her then, with force; a force that surprised both of them.

'Oh fuck the baby, Patrick. We need to sort out that mad bastard first. Then we can make sure this one doesn't turn out to be a nutcase and all…'

Patrick had never heard her speak like that before and he understood how she felt about what Lance had done, but shouting at him was not going to change that. He swallowed down his annoyance once more.

'Calm down, Lil. Getting upset is not going to solve anything is, it?'

Lil clenched her fists in rage at his words, knowing he meant well, but unable to play his game this time. She didn't want platitudes, she wanted action and she wanted him to tell her that her feelings for her child were merited. That he would sort this all out and take the onus off of her. She wanted him to take Lance in hand and make him right in the head, make him normal and make her love him. She wanted him to make the hatred she felt for her child go away.

Janie Callahan had brought her worst nightmare into her home; as soon as she had seen her on the doorstep, she had known that Lance had finally overstepped the mark. She had almost enjoyed it, beating him and making him pay for the way he made her feel, for the guilt that lay over her like a lead weight.

'You're telling me to calm down? You fucking kill me. You think a few choice words are going to sort this out?'

The incredulity in Lil's voice was apparent and Pat closed his eyes. He only wanted to calm her down, that was all.

'He is a fucking moron and you know it. There is a cunning in him, Pat, a hateful, deceitful cunning that runs through him. He has to be curbed, he has to be taken in hand, Patrick. You can do it for once, you can fucking well sort this one out. For once in your life you can do the honours where that bastard is concerned, because I have had it, I can't do this any more.'

Patrick could smell whisky and it was a few moments before it dawned on him that she was drunk. She was half-cut and, as he looked around the kitchen, he saw the half-empty bottle of Bells. Grabbing her arms, he forced her on to a chair.

'Don't you dare push me like that…' Her voice was louder than she expected and she knew she was getting out of hand, that the drink was talking for her. But she had needed something to take the edge off the day, help her relax and make her sleep.

'I didn't push you, Lil, I just helped you to a seat before you keeled over. Now, for the last time, calm down for fuck's sake.'

His annoyance was in his voice now and she heard it with a thrill of pleasure. He was reacting at last and showing some kind of real emotion.

'You have to send him away from here, send him to a boarding school or something. I want him out of this house and I mean it…'

Pat poured himself a drink, anything to stop himself from answering his wife. He needed to calm down and think before he spoke to her. She was not in any mood for chit-chat and he wanted her calm and lucid before he talked the problem through.

'There's a Jesuit school in Ireland. I was reading about it a while back in the church magazine and they take problem kids. It ain't cheap but who cares about that. The priest will know more about it; we can enquire tomorrow. Either way, he has to go, Pat. He has to go away because I won't be responsible for my actions if he stays around me.'

Patrick had always known that Lil had not taken to Lance as she should have. But he had not realised that it was as bad as this. Her mother had taken the boy over and, truth be told, it was the only reason he had tolerated the old bitch, because he knew deep down that Lil had no affection for the boy. He had understood, because Lance had a similar effect on him. But he rationalised his feelings and blamed it on the way Annie had taken him over from the second he had been born. He knew the relationship between Lance and his mother-in-law wasn't healthy but with Patrick Junior being a handful and the twins arriving so quickly he had let it go. He had tried to cut the cord a few times over the years but Lil had always been the instigator of her mother and Lance being reunited.

'A Jesuit school, Lil? That's your answer, is it? Send him away?'

She nodded and stared at him defiantly, letting him know that she was deadly serious. Now this had happened, now it was all out in the open, she wanted it resolved once and for all. Knowing what her son was capable of was enough for her to know she didn't want him near her.

'He ain't going away, Lil. He might be a fucker but he is eight. Eight years old. He had no real understanding of what he was doing…'

'He knew exactly what he was doing to that child. A few days earlier he had blacked her eye and punched her to the ground…'

She was nodding now at the horror on his face. 'Yeah, punched the poor little mare for no reason at all. He is a spiteful little shit and he ain't ever going to get the chance to fucking vent his rage on my girls…'

'Stop it, Lil; he loves the twins…'

This was too far now; as if the boy would harm his own sisters.

Lil laughed sadly. 'You just don't get it, do you, Pat?' Either he goes or I do…'

'Don't be so dramatic, you silly mare, that's the drink talking. And you should know better than to get pissed in your condition. And as for Lance, he is the product of your fucking mother, and her constant mollycoddling. I'll hammer the little git and when I have finished with him he won't fucking dare put a foot wrong. Now, stop talking out of your arse, and let's get to bed.'

He had finally had enough. He was going to nip this lot in the bud. Lil needed a good night's sleep and then maybe she would see this lot in a different light.

'I am not going anywhere, Patrick Brodie, until you promise me that Lance, the unnatural little bastard, will be taken away from here. Away from my other kids. From this new baby especially. I can't look at him without wanting to harm him and that is me telling you the truth of it. I want him out of this fucking house and away from me and mine!'

As she spoke she saw Lance standing in the doorway looking at her with those calm blue eyes that had bothered her even when he had been a babe in arms. She retched then and only just made it to the sink before the whisky and the day's events finally got the better of her and she threw up. As she retched she could hear her husband's breathing in the silence of the kitchen and she knew then that he would not do anything that she had asked of him. Lance would be taken in hand by him and he would fool his father as he fooled everyone else.

Spider was in a dilemma. His mother was looking at the lifeless body of her son and he wasn't able to do anything to make it better.

Cain had been found in a skip. The skip was outside a house in Leytonstone; the people who had hired it had expected a few other things to be dumped in it alongside the rubbish they cleared from their garden. A naked black man with a screwdriver forced through his ear had not been on their list. The woman's screams had alerted the neighbours and she was being sedated by the duty doctor as Spider and his mother were in the mortuary identifying his brother's remains.

Spider knew Patrick was angry, but he had not expected anything like this.

As he looked at his little brother he felt the full weight of his grief and, as his mother began to keen like a trapped animal, he was brought back to reality.

He nodded at the policeman and then watched as his mother was led from the room by a nurse. Her weeping was loud in the hushed quietness.

The policeman was watching him warily but Spider expected that and he looked at his brother's bloodied remains impassively. The less the filth knew, the better. He had to box clever with this now if he was going to convince them it was a random attack and not gang-related. They were more than aware of his credentials, which is why they had come to him quickly and quietly. They wanted to see if this boy's death was going to have any far-reaching consequences.

Which of course it would.

But the police in question would be well looked after if and when forthcoming events warranted it.

As Spider looked down at Cain and saw the gaping hole in his ear where a screwdriver had been forced through it, he felt nothing except a coldness inside him.

He only hoped Cain had been unconscious when the fatal blow had been administered; the thought of him knowing what had been happening to him was something he would not be able to bear. Violence was a part of their world and he knew that, but to think of his little brother going through all that pain was more than he could stand.

'Do you have any idea who might have been responsible?'

The policeman's voice was low and respectful, as befitted Spider's standing in the community. Spider knew that anyone else would have been interrogated by now. The assumption being, he had to know who the culprit was.

Spider shook his head keeping his face impassive as usual and looking as innocent as a newborn baby. 'He was well-liked, popular; this had to be some kind of mugging. I don't know what else it could be.'

The policeman accepted his explanation without any kind of query whatsoever, as Spider knew that he would.

He left the room and made his way back to his mother and sisters. They were huddled together in a scrum, all crying, smudged lipstick and grief. It was so raw it was almost tangible in the room. As he saw them hugging and trying to comfort one another he felt the futility of many a man before him when faced with the mortality of loved ones and, more frightening in his world, the realisation of their own mortality.

Young people dying did that to a body; it was like a shock to the system for the people left behind. It proved how tenuous the link was between life and death and how final the latter was. It occurred to Spider that he would never hear his brother's voice again. Never hear his explanation for the night's events.

He cuddled his mother and three sisters in turn, taking their grief on as his own. As he drove them home a while later he swore that Brodie was behind Cain's death and that he would have to pay for this night's work.

A warning was one thing, but this was something else entirely That his mother had to bury her child was outrageous and Brodie would know his feelings on that subject sooner rather than later.

It was all going wrong, everything was caving in on him and now he understood what the life he had chosen could be like when you were on the receiving end of someone else's fuck-up. Until now he had always been the one calling the shots, had been the top dog, but he was finding out what life could be like on the outside looking in and, for the first time, he felt pity for the Williams brothers and all their ilk.

Chapter Sixteen

Ricky Williams was pleased with himself. He was like the others in looks but now his older brothers were dead and the others were like nervous brides; he was suddenly the acknowledged genius of the family. Which didn't exactly say a lot for the intelligence of the others, though no one was arguing about that. As long as someone was taking on the mantle, which they saw as the blame, they were happy enough. As Brodie had always said, if the brothers had someone to do the thinking for them, they were an asset. If they attempted to think for themselves, it was all bound to fall out of bed. Ricky saw himself as the Brain of Britain. In fact, like many before him, he felt he had been a king-in-waiting. The others were looking to him now and wanting him to sort everything out. They were a crowd of useless cunts but they were all he had so he was lumbered with them. Dave, Tommy and the rest were an embarrassment to him these days. He felt it was his duty to bring the family back on top and make people respect them again. They had used Cain for their own ends and they had not achieved anything from that. They were running scared and it was up to him to get the ball rolling once more, to bring them back into the world they had once called their own.

It had taken the deaths of half his family for him to finally be seen as a leader by his brothers but he was willing to overlook that in the light of his new-found status.

Ricky, however, for all his plotting and ideas actually had a very short attention span. Unless it was for women that is. And he had no real vocabulary unless it pertained to the female body or the uses he had found for it and even that was speckled with profane language. He was also a man who prided himself on his ability to act on the spur of the moment. He saw an opportunity and was in there quicker than a pimp on a Vespa.

As he chatted up the dark-eyed girl in the rah-rah skirt and the heavy make-up, he was patting himself on the back. He had seen a chance and he had taken it. When his brothers heard what he had done, he would be hailed a hero, he was sure. Cain, he had decided, had been ready to serve them up to his brother and he had made sure that would never happen. Cain was a piece of shit and his use was over and done with. Ricky had been sensible enough to look out for the others, to look out for the family; a family that had been depleted over the last few years by the likes of Brodie and his sidekick Spider. As his dad used to say: what do you call a man with more money than you? A sworn fucking enemy, and he was right. Why be the breakers, the fucking back-up, the runts who collected the money for everyone else? It was ludicrous that his brothers had not sussed that out long ago. Without people like them, no one could ply their trades; the heavies were the backbone of any moody business. Ricky was absolutely thrilled with himself and with his antics. He was on a roll and knew that he was going to make sure the Williams name was put back where it belonged.

Now though, he was going to celebrate with a shag and a curry, in that order. This girl with the crooked teeth and the heavy eyeliner was just what the doctor ordered. From her denim waistcoat to her Union Jack clogs, she screamed easy lay and he should know, he had been perfecting the art of ferreting out girls like her since he had been at junior school. She was soapy but that didn't put him off; he wanted to fuck it not marry it. Even though he had acquired a reputation for predominantly shagging birds from the lower-end of the female food chain, he had no shame. If it had a pulse he was there. No matter how old the birds were, as long as they were passable on a dark night, he was game. He didn't want Miss World, he was happy enough with Miss Buy Me a Drink and I'll Drop Me Cacks.

It was all relative as far as he was concerned. He liked the thrill of a new hole and enjoyed the feel of different breasts and different bodies. He didn't want perfection, he just wanted a bird who was as up for it as he was. A bird who had no illusions about what would be happening to her and didn't expect declarations of love before, during or after the momentous event. A fuck was a fuck as far as he was concerned and he liked to get in at least a couple on a daily basis. He searched out strange like other men searched for gold or holy grails. He just loved women's bodies, all shapes and all sizes.

As young Natalie smiled her acquiescence he felt the familiar rush that a new conquest always gave him. She had been about, he knew that; her eyes and the way that she knocked back her drinks told him that much. She was the type who had found out at an early age that men were really only after one thing and she had been supplying them with it ever since.

Leaving the pub with her, he was unaware of the man watching him from a black Beamer in the car park. It pulled out quietly behind him as he hit the main road, his radio blaring out and his head full of the night's coming attractions.

Annie was alone again and she didn't like it. Throughout her marriage she had dreamt of a life surrounded by people, a life filled with events and happenings that included her. Unfortunately, she had never learnt the knack of actually being around other people. Her daughter had been the reason she had finally found companionship but even then it was only the children she wanted to see. One child more than the others but she couldn't help where her heart lay, the boy had captured it from the moment she had seen his face. She didn't admit that her daughter had the baby blues at the time; that she had used her daughter's post-natal depression to inveigle herself into all their lives. She saw herself as selflessly taking on her daughter's family and helping her Lil out when she was at her lowest ebb. It was only because of that that she was even tolerated. Even Annie's harshest critics, and they were legion around their streets, gave her that as her due; she had been there for her daughter when she had needed her.

She had made Lance her own and for the first time in years she had felt something akin to happiness. Now though, she was once more on the outside looking in, and her Lance was being victimised for a prank, a childish prank.

As Annie put the kettle on, she looked out of the window of her flat, the home her daughter had provided for her. The grass outside was in need of a good cut and the other flats around her were all lit up, their occupants going about their nightly routines. The flicker of televisions and the occasional sound of a dog barking broke the silence for her. Families were eating together, watching television together, being together.

She was on the verge of tears once more and taking her tea, she walked into her front room slowly. The room was over-furnished and over-polished. A heavy smell of beeswax and cigarettes permeated everything, even the wallpaper with its pink roses and a thin gold line as the background. Every surface was covered in photographs, mainly of Lance, though the twins were also in evidence. Lil and Pat Junior were in only one. Patrick Junior's Communion photo. It was on the mantlepiece, along with Lance's.

Annie stared at them now; wondering if her boy was all right and worried about Pat Brodie's reaction to his son's foolish prank. She could kick Janie Callahan's arse for the trouble she had caused her family. She missed the twins, their little voices prattling on and the happy faces that glowed with pleasure every time she turned up with a Wagon Wheel for each of them. She now understood just what a joy children could be and, if she was honest, in her darkest moments, she wished she had learned that secret many years before. Lil had been a burden to her from day one, had always been a burden, but now she was sorry she had not made a friend of her only child earlier. She missed the conversation and the noise that her daughter's house seemed to be filled with constantly. She missed the pranks, the kids' laughter and the endless cups of tea and cigarettes that were now a staple of her days. Lil was all right and it had taken her this long to admit that to herself. She was heartsorry now for all the years she had made her own life a misery, along with her daughter's.

Annie had been lonely before, but now it was like a physical ache inside her and not just for Lance. She was actually missing her daughter, missing her chatter and her easy-going ways. It had been a week since she had been to the house and it felt like a lifetime. How she had lived under that cloud for so long she had no idea any more; the years of sitting in the quiet and waiting for a man who had no real interest in her seemed ludicrous now. The waste of her life bothered her. That she had broken under the weight of her husband's disregard and had joined forces with him in his hate and his disappointments, had made them her own, and for no reason other than that she had only seen him as a way to regain respectability because she had been pregnant with Lil. Now the opinion of the neighbours meant nothing to her; girls had babies without a second's thought and no one really cared any more. It was a nine-day wonder and she had been lumbered with her old man to give her child a name. She had thought it was so important once and she had held a grudge against poor Lil because of it. She had lived in a vacuum with a man who had snatched her up because no other girl would have had him if they didn't have good reason and lived in a home devoid of life, laughter and peace of mind.

Her daughter's house, on the other hand, was inviting and warm and, most of all, happy. Until Lance's little mishap with the Callahan girl it seemed to her, with hindsight, that her life had been ideal. And in truth, it had been.

Now she was back where she started, alone and unwanted. Even her new friends were only really civil to her because of her daughter's name and now she might be on the out they were avoiding her like the plague. When all this calmed down she was going to make an effort to be indispensable, amiable and approachable; she was lost without them and she didn't want to feel like this ever again.

The knock at the door made her jump. She wasn't a woman who had visitors; in fact, very few people had ever been inside this room. The urgency of the door knocker brought her hurrying into her hallway and, as she opened the door, she remembered that she should have checked who was behind it first.

Look, Spider, I never touched Cain in that way. You are barking up the wrong tree, mate, if you think any different. I think we all know who the culprits are, don't we? You knew he was on the missing list and you did nothing about it so don't come the fucking concerned brother now.'

Spider was quiet. He'd had to ask and he knew Patrick understood that and wouldn't hold it against him.

'He had a fucking good hiding and I admit that. You know it was long overdue. Fucking screwdrivers in the lughole though; that ain't my kind of retribution. That smacks to me of an opportunist, an amateur using whatever came to hand. He was a skaghead for fuck sakes so he could have been done over by any number of people. Even though you are his brother it wouldn't stop anyone taking what was rightfully theirs and you know it. Not to mention the fact that he was hanging out with the Williamses. We dropped him near your place. We knew he would make his way there whatever and as he was out of his fucking box on Special K and whiz, among other things. We felt that he needed a hand in that direction. He was not capable of finding his own cock, let alone your drum or even his own, come to that. He was wasted and he was well battered and, believe me, I felt like taking him out but, at the end of the day, we are hardly going to kill him and dump him in a skip, are we? I mean, give us some credence, for fuck's sakes.'

Patrick poured them both drinks but his anger and his obvious disdain were more than evident.

'His dealer, another fucking skaghead, any number of people could have ironed him out for any number of reasons and you know it. He was on the brown and you can't fucking trust anyone on that; they would sell out their own granny for a two-quid wrap. He was a good kid and he chose to fuck up but you have to sort your head out, Spider. Stop fucking overdramatising everything. Cain got mullered; it's sad but a fact of life. Get over it, will you, or at least look for the real culprits.'

Patrick was a big man and Spider had forgotten how Brodie could intimidate those around him without resorting to physical violence. It was this that had made him the top of his game and it was also what kept him there.

'I'm having the Williams lot tailed to see where they go and what they do. I would lay poke they were behind Cain's demise because he was too fucking close to them. That fucking Jasper is on his way over to give his opinion on the latest events and you can bet he is in on the fucking lot of it. But this is the Williams brothers' fucking swan song. I ain't fucking letting it go this time. They have really pissed me off and I will teach them a lesson they will never forget. You were the one who wanted me to go easy on them, remember, you and Cain. So don't fucking bring your shit to my door ever again unless you want it cleared up. You had your fucking chance and you did nothing and now you are finding out what happens when you let your emotions take over.'

Patrick's anger was ripe and justified. He had tried to keep the peace, had given Spider time to sort his brother out and this was the upshot. He must be getting soft in his old age. Well he was going to cause a fucking war over this little lot. He was going to set an example that would be noted and digested by everyone in their world. He loved Spider like a brother and that was where he had gone wrong. Watch your own arse; it made life much easier in the long run.

Spider watched the changing expressions on his friend's face and knew he was on the sidelines himself over his brother's foolishness and his delay in curbing it. He also knew that Patrick was having family trouble himself; his son's crime was common knowledge and, though most people were of the opinion that he was out of order and in need of a good hiding, there was also a general consensus that he would make a great enforcer one day. If he had that kind of viciousness in him now, what would he be like in ten or fifteen years? He was a born heavy according to the powers that be and his rep was already being established. The little girl in question had already become an older boy in the retelling of the tale. All stories got stretched in the telling and this one was no exception. So Lance was already a known quantity to the men his father moved among. They saw him as a chip off the old block, as someone to watch out for in the future.

Spider had never liked the boy, though the other kids were lovely. He knew, as Patrick knew, that the boy had a screw loose somewhere. He was a weirdo and that was being nice about it. Cain, it seemed, had had the same defect, had suffered from the same selfishness, and it was this that was making it so hard for him now. Like Brodie he was of the opinion you cut out the cancer before it devoured you and yours but he had not wanted to do that to Cain. He had not been capable of harming him. He would have, eventually, he knew, but only when he had exhausted every other route first.

He knew his brother had met his death because of this man before him, if not by him, but he couldn't let that colour his thinking. Patrick had only done what he should have done in the first place. What he should have done without thinking about it, uncaring of the fact that Cain was his brother and his best friend. He had loved that boy as if he was his own child and that had been his downfall; he knew that now and he accepted his stupidity. He had let his brother's bad behaviour carry on without even attempting to curb it and now he was reaping what he had inadvertently sowed. It would never happen again, he was sure of that.

Now they were in a worse situation and it was all down to him. Cain was dead and gone but the world was still turning, the sun still rose and set and he still had a family to feed.

The Williams brothers were dead meat though, that much he could at least control. And he was going to make sure they were visited before the week was out. Spider believed in personal service and he was looking forward to taking them out one by one. But first he had to calm the waters with Brodie and ingratiate himself once more with the man who had given him everything he had in life and who had given it without a second's thought.

Spider had to salvage what he could from all this and he hoped that, at some point, that included his pride and the respect of this man who had given him more over the years than anyone else in the world.

Alan Palmer was a man who knew his own worth and, as the acknowledged front-runner in the world of the East End discotheque, he was more aware of what was happening in his nightclubs than anybody would have given him credit for. Alan was a big man, not heavy but solid, thick blond hair and icy-blue eyes; good-looking enough to warrant female interest with or without his loaded wallet. He had been dealing with Brodie for years; he knew that he would not be able to run his clubs without his express permission and he paid a fair price to guarantee that.

Alan Palmer had three brothers-in-law, all handy enough, all with decent credentials and all dependent on him for their livings. His brother had been murdered not too long ago by relatives of the young man sitting opposite him. He had Ricky Williams in his offices in Ilford offering him protection at a reduced rate and not one of his brothers-in-law were available to aim this ponce out the door, so it looked like he was going to have to sort it himself. For Alan, violence was a last resort, unlike his brother, who had seen it as a first resort. Now he was brown bread, so what did that tell you? Violence was also something to be used with the utmost discretion, especially in the entertainment business. This was something he had learned many moons ago and it had been an expensive, inconvenient and hard-taught lesson.

Alan smiled lazily, exposing his expensive teeth for the first time since Ricky had gatecrashed into his club.

'Are you on fucking drugs or what?'

His complete contempt for the man sitting opposite him was apparent in his every word and Ricky Williams was offended.

'Go on. Piss off home to your mother and don't ever strong it with me again.'

Ricky sat it out, staring at Alan with a quiet intensity. 'You should use your loaf, Alan. If we all band together, what the fuck is Brodie going to do, eh? I have half of south London on board and me and my brothers are going to take a piece of this place in the end. If you come on board with us now, you will be the fucking main man. The fucking number one.'

Alan started laughing. But the boy's words were tempting, as Ricky had known they would be. Alan Palmer was a force to be reckoned with and that was a certified fact. Over the years he had gathered people to him, as any decent employer did; the fact most of his workforce were out on licence didn't bother him at all. He had a few good scams on the go and he also had a burning ambition but he knew that while Brodie drew breath he would never be challenged by anyone on his turf. If you worked for anyone, you inadvertently worked for Brodie; that had been established many years before. Patrick had sewn up all the main money-spinners and people like him depended on Brodie's goodwill and largesse to carry out their business dealings smoothly. Brodie guaranteed licences and premises; without his say-so no one could work anything. It was a good arrangement in many ways because it meant that anyone could get a drinks licence or a gaming certificate; anything they needed really, no matter what their past form might be.

In other ways though, it was a bugbear; they had to keep on paying Brodie a hefty wedge for as long as they were trading. Spider had been one of the main protagonists where Palmer's brother's death had been concerned; if needs be he could still take umbrage at his brother's demise or he might choose to accept it gracefully. He would wait and see what the outcome of this kid's ideas were before he decided what his reaction was going to be. Like any astute businessman, Alan Palmer was always open to negotiation with anyone who had a good business plan and something to offer him.

He knew Kicky Williams was on his last legs in many respects and he also knew that, like the rest of his family, dead or alive, he had the intelligence of a drunken wombat. All that aside though, it didn't mean he wasn't capable of at least one act of derring-do.

'Are you trying to tell me that you are capable of taking out Patrick Brodie?' This was said with a mixture of laughter and seriousness that wasn't lost on Ricky. He was actually shocked at how quickly Alan Palmer had swallowed the bait.

'You know the position my family is in now, thanks to Brodie and that cunt Spider. If I could remove Brodie, would you be willing to settle with me and mine and let bygones be bygones?'

Alan knew that Patrick and Spider were probably going to wipe this man and his remaining brothers off the face of the earth; and so they should, the Williams brothers had been asking for it for a long time now. It was overdue, there was no doubt about that. But if, and it was a big if, this prat did the unthinkable then he would not be averse to taking over the reins so to speak.

He was well-respected and he was also in possession of a serious fortune; both of which would be mandatory if he was to step up a gear and take on the mantle of a serious firm. His pulse was quickening at the thought of it; he could take the whole place over with the minimum of fuss. There was no one to stop him and, after Brodie, he was the next best thing.

Old Jimmy Brick would soon see where his expertise would be best employed and he would make him an offer he wouldn't turn down. It would mean recruiting the rest of Brodie's workforce of course, but that would not be such a hardship. Patrick had always surrounded himself with the best and he had been champing at the bit for a long time.

'You're off your fucking tree, Ricky. If you say things like that to the wrong people you could find yourself in a lot of trouble. Patrick won't be impressed, I can tell you, and you ain't exactly flavour of the month with him, are you? Cain's death has fucked you lot once and for all. Patrick is one thing but Spider is a fucking handful and you think you could take them both out then?'

He was laughing, but Ricky knew what Alan was saying to him. He was willing to do whatever was necessary to keep the Williams family safe. Ricky knew he wasn't cute enough to run anything himself; he needed someone else to do that for him but if he took out Brodie and Spider then his rep would be secured and Alan Palmer and his cronies would see him and his brothers right. 'Watch this fucking space, Alan. You just watch.' Ricky was laughing loudly almost on the verge of hysteria, and Alan Palmer shook his head in disbelief, while making plans in case the mad bastard actually achieved his objective.

'He ain't going away, Lil, and that's that.'

The finality in her husband's voice depressed her, but she knew that nothing she said would change his mind. Lil was a realist and where her husband was concerned she was sensible enough to know that further arguing would be pointless.

'You leave him to me, all right? I will sort the fucker out in future.'

He had been as good as his word, she would give him that much. Lance had not left his room except to go to school since the day it had all blown up. Patrick had given him a stern talking-to and another good hiding to boot.

Lance was shrewd though; he was telling them all what they wanted to hear and, even though he looked contrite, she knew in her heart of hearts that he was anything but. It was just talk to him, it meant nothing. She had often secretly wondered over the years if he copied Patrick's behaviour and his emotional responses because he seemed genuine enough to everyone else, but she knew, somehow she just knew, it was all an act.

Sighing, she went back to making more sausage rolls for the birthday party that she wished she had never agreed to now. Everyone around was chipping in and helping her; making sandwiches, cakes, tarts and quiches. She was providing the ingredients of course but the way people had rallied around pleased her. Since Janie's visit she had taken on a new lease of life; she was back in the real world again and it felt good. Even with the baby dragging her down and Lance's aberration, she was feeling lighter somehow. Her mother's presence had always hung over the house like a shroud but now, though they spoke on the phone, her absence was like a breath of fresh air. People came round more, stayed longer and there was laughter and joking. Lil had forgotten how her mother managed to dampen everything with a few choice words. Now she was reminded of how different the house could be and even the stab of guilt she felt occasionally because she was relishing having the house and her children to herself wasn't enough for her to bring her mother back into the fold. She knew her mother would stay away until Lil told her otherwise. Patrick was blamed though the words were not said outright, just implied. Lance was confined to his room so she didn't have to deal with him too much either. Like her mother, he put a damper on everything. Somehow just his being in a room caused upset and, as bad as she felt about admitting it, she was still enjoying the holiday from the pair of them.

Janie arrived and they chatted together amiably as they made even more food. Covering the plates of sandwiches with tin foil they placed them on the worktops ready for Patrick Junior's birthday party.

The boy himself was watching the preparations with barely contained excitement. He was going to be ten and he felt the enormity of his party as if it was a living thing. His friends, schoolmates, family and neighbours would all be there. It was unlike any party he had enjoyed before. He not only had a disco but proper food, and adults were invited as well as children. It was a big responsibility he knew and he was nervous about it all. The drink his father had bought was sitting in the hallway in large cardboard boxes. There was alcohol for the grown-ups and every kind of soft drink imaginable for the children. Just looking at it all made his heart race.

Patrick Junior's only worry was Lance. His mother and father were adamant that he was not going to attend the party as part of his punishment. He knew they were doing the right thing but at the same time Lance was going to miss out on something that would be remembered for the rest of their lives. Patrick Junior knew that he would not enjoy the day as fully because Lance wasn't there. Lance was a pain and he had done something really wrong, really dangerous, but he was still his brother and he would like him at his party so that in years to come they could discuss it without any bad feeling. To Pat Junior the party was the biggest thing that had ever happened to him in his life and he wanted to share the excitement with Lance. He knew that the party would be the main topic of conversation for weeks to come at school and around abouts. Lance would feel it acutely if he couldn't join in and that worried Pat Junior. He didn't want to have to stop talking about it because his brother had missed out, even if it was his own fault. Lance managed to ruin everything without even trying.

Even though Pat Junior felt sorry for Lance, a small part of him was also relieved that he wouldn't be able to show off in front of everyone, and he couldn't denigrate it if he wasn't in attendance; he put down everything that pertained to his older brother. Patrick Junior still had enough heart to feel sorrow for his brother's plight though. He knew Lance was in bits over his father's decision to keep him in his room, and although Pat knew that his punishment was for his own good and that missing the event would make him think seriously about what he had done. Patrick Junior instinctively knew that as bad as Lance was, missing the party would cause more problems in the long run than it would ever solve.

Ricky Williams was nervous and his brothers were all worried about the next few days as well. Looking around the room at them, Ricky wondered how he was going to keep them in line once his plans were put into place.

Dave, Bernie and Tommy were quiet as he told them what he had done and what he was planning, and Ricky knew that they looked at him with a new respect. They now saw him as the man he knew he had always been. All he wanted now was the chance to show everyone in their circle of friends his acumen and his strength of purpose.

Ricky looked over the bar and caught the eye of a dark-haired girl in a frilly shirt and, motioning with his hands, ordered more lagers. As she walked to the bar with her hands full of dirty glasses he watched her intently. She wasn't a great beauty but she had a nice plump arse and he liked that in a woman. She was a bit battered round the edges and older than he had first thought, but she had a nice smile. A wide-open smile that made her look friendly and approachable. He decided he liked her enough to present her with his secret weapon at some point in the near future. Her wink as she poured the pints convinced him he was on to a winner and, as always, his quest for strange took precedence over everything else.

They were in a pub in Kent. Until they were once more welcome visitors in the Smoke they had decided that their best course of action was to lay low for a while. Especially since Cain's unfortunate little accident. Ricky decided that he liked Kent, the garden of England. He liked the skirt, the pubs and the way the locals left them to their own devices. In fact, he was so enamoured of the county that he decided there and then to buy a drum there at some point in the future.

It felt good to relax properly for once, to just sit in a pub without having to watch the door, observe who was already there and buy drinks for a crowd of people he didn't even like, if truth be told. The easiness of the regulars here told him that this was a straight pub, a real pub, where people really did come just for a few beers and a bit of a chat. Ricky had forgotten how good that could feel but he was also aware of how good it could feel to be in a pub and know you could give it the large without fear or favour and where people fell over one another to get you a drink. Where you chose the music and the clientele and where you proved to yourself that you were somebody, that you counted.

Not long now and that would be his life once again. As the woman brought over the lagers he gave her a blinding smile and a big tip. Ricky was a great believer in laying down the groundwork first, that way you always got the result you wanted; her ready smile told him he was already halfway into her drawers. Life, he decided, was good. And from tomorrow it could only get better.

Chapter Seventeen

Jimmy Brick had the hump but no one looking at him would have known that. He had his smiley face on today, on account of it being the kid's birthday party.

He knew, however, that even a kid's party could turn pear-shaped in their world; alcoholic beverages and short tempers were often enough to start a world war.

His niece's christening, for example, had led to a murder and a life sentence for his brother-in-law, who had not been invited due to his habit of clumping her one when the fancy took him. He had been outed from the drum they had once shared by himself and a few others, and had taken it in pretty good part. Until Ursula, his sister, had kissed her new bloke in the back garden of the marital home; cue said brother-in-law scaling fence, the shooting, the screaming of the female relatives and the rest of the Sunday sitting in the Bill shop as they took statements.

No, Jimmy didn't trust even the most innocent of parties or the most innocent of guests. Everyone was capable of a tear-up given the correct set of circumstances; he was convinced of that much. He was determined to make sure that Pat Junior's party was fight free.

The hall looked fantastic, all banners and balloons. The food was weighing down the large trestle tables and the aroma was killing him. Egg and cress got to him every time and he swiped a few and munched them quickly. The bar was now set up and the DJ, an obvious moron, was ready to rock and roll. Jimmy supervised the placing of the tables and chairs, had a quick fag outside the church hall and then, finally, he relaxed. The kid was lucky to have a party like this at ten years old; he had not had anything even close to this for his twenty-first. He was a nice kid though, young Pat Junior. He was a sturdy little fucker and he looked like his old man. Was like the spit out of his mouth, as his mother used to say. The other one, that Lance, was a strange cove and no mistake. He was a head case and there was nothing wrong with that, but Patrick had made a point of keeping him away from the day's celebrations to teach him a lesson. Give him ten years though and he'd be a force to be reckoned with. Missing a party wouldn't be the highlight of his life's disappointments, he would lay money on that much. That Lance was a maniac waiting to blossom and, when he did, God help anyone who got in his way.

Lil was listening to her mother with half an ear. As she brushed Kathleen's hair she marvelled at its softness; in matching cream party dresses the twins looked gorgeous. When they were dressed up, their likeness was somehow even more pronounced although Eileen had darker eyes but, unless you really looked, it wasn't that noticeable.

'When I answered the door and saw your man standing there I nearly had a heart attack.'

Annie was pleased to see she finally had her daughter's attention.

'What, Pat came round yours? That's a turn up for the books.'

Annie nodded with what she hoped was a winsome look. She so desperately wanted to get back into her daughter's good books that she was willing to try anything. She had never felt so lonely in her life as she had the last week or so.

'What did he say?'

Annie smiled slightly and her heavily wrinkled eyes reminded Lil of just how much her mother had missed them all. She seemed to have aged dramatically and, as Lil looked at her, she felt her mother's need of her and her family.

'He just said that Lance was going to be punished and that I would be better off keeping away for a while so you two could sort him out in private.'

Lil was sceptical about that but she didn't voice her thoughts.

Annie was not going to tell her daughter that Patrick Brodie had read her the riot act; had threatened her with total banishment if she indulged Lance any more or treated any of the other children differently from him. He had told her outright that he didn't like her and she was only going to be brought back into the fold if she kept on the right side of him. One false move and she was toast, was how he had so nicely put it.

She had readily agreed; she would walk over hot coals if that's what it would take to get herself back into the bosom of her family. She had stopped herself from going near Lance today, acting as if she wasn't bothered whether she saw him or not. She wasn't fooling anyone, she knew, but at least they could see she was trying. As Lil pulled Eileen on to her lap to brush her hair through and put it into bunches like her sister's, Annie thought that she would die from happiness. Kathleen walked over to her and put her arms up for a cuddle without any coercion from her at all.


Annie smiled in delight at the child's words.

'Nutty Nanny Annie.'

Lil could have happily beaten her husband to death for teaching the girls to say that and as she waited for her mother to make a scathing remark she was surprised to see that she was laughing with Kathleen. Really laughing with her and it was such an unusual sight she felt her eyes fill with tears. Her hormones must be on overdrive because she was very tearful lately; the least little thing could set her off. Since Lance had hurt that girl, she had been on a knife-edge and though she knew her pregnancy was the main reason for her mood changes, her son's actions still gave her sleepless nights.

Eileen was laughing as well now and Lil hugged her daughter to her, thanking God for the twins, as she did on a daily basis. They were little angels and she knew that though every woman thought their kids were beautiful, hers really were. Not just to her, but to complete strangers. People always remarked on them when she took them out; they were such happy children and so friendly and contented that they made a stir wherever they went. And if they had melted Annie Diamond's heart then they had to be special, because in all her life she had never managed to elicit so much as a smile from her mother and at times that still grieved her.

Pat Junior walked into the room in his new clothes and Lil watched his handsome face as he picked up both his sisters in his arms and chatted to them in a funny voice. In his new clothes; black Farah trousers and a white Ben Sherman shirt, he looked so grown up she was speechless for a moment. She suddenly saw the young man who was beginning to emerge and she was reminded once more that children were only on loan to you. Before you knew it, they were grown up and getting ready to fly the nest. She so wanted them to feel loved, and wanted them to feel that she had given them a happy childhood. She wanted them to have everything she had never had in her own childhood.

Annie saw her daughter's face and wished she had some gem of wisdom to share with her on this big occasion, but she couldn't remember Lil's tenth birthday, or any of her birthdays, for that matter. They had never celebrated anything and how she regretted that now, for letting her husband rule her, rule them both. She conveniently forgot that she had let him and had become like him. That she had resented the child that had forced her into marriage with him. Annie sighed. You lived and learned and she had been lucky enough to be given a second chance with this daughter of hers and she was grateful for that much.

She wondered if Lil was thinking the same as her as she looked at her eldest grandson, nearly prostrate with excitement at the thought of his party, and thanking his mother over and over again for all the work she had put into it. She couldn't help wondering if this was reminding her daughter of her own empty birthdays and her own childhood, as it was reminding her.

Annie heard the front door open and Patrick Brodie's loud voice as he called out for the birthday boy. Annie was still nervous of him and as she made her way out to the hall and admired Patrick Junior's new bike, she reminded herself she was still on probation as far as her daughter's husband was concerned.

He winked at her and she smiled at him with obvious relief. He grabbed his wife in his arms and said happily to Patrick Junior, 'Ten, eh, son. You'll be eye to eye with me soon. My old man stopped giving me the belt the day I hit eye level. I lamped him one and told him that next time I'd do it when he was asleep and he never tried to beat me again.'

Pat Junior loved it when his father told him stories about his own childhood. As he caressed his new racing bike, he asked him seriously, 'Did he really hit you with a belt, Dad?'

'He fucking hammered me with anything that came to hand. Miserable old bastard he was. Still is, for all I know. But the belt hurt, I can tell you.'

Pat Junior looked at his mother then. 'Did Nanny Annie ever hit you, Mum?'

It was said in jest but he immediately regretted asking because the humour went and she answered flatly, 'Come on, let's get sorted. Make sure you brush your hair for the photograph, OK?'

Pat Junior nodded and he saw his grandmother's face had turned scarlet. He felt the sudden urge to grab his mother in his arms and comfort her, even though he wasn't sure why. His father got there first, though. He watched with sad eyes as his father kissed his mother gently on the lips before saying quietly, 'I love you Lily Brodie and don't you ever forget that.'

Pat Junior felt the urge to cry then and his mother, sensing her son's discomfort, pulled him into her heavy belly and kissing him on the top of his head, she laughed.

'What a bleeding crowd we are, near to tears on the best day of your life!'

Pat Junior felt his father's hand on his shoulder and, embraced by both his parents, he wished that the moment would never end. He felt so safe, so protected and loved that he knew he would carry the memory of this moment all his life.

Dave, Bernie and Tommy Williams were drunk. They had been out on it since the morning and now it was early afternoon they were rocking. As they stood at the bar laughing loudly, they were aware of the looks they were getting from the regulars.

They had not been in this pub for a while and they knew that their sudden appearance would have already been reported back to base camp.

It was the day of the big party and anyone who was anyone would be going to the church hall laden down with presents and good-natured bonhomie.

They knew they were safe enough. Pat Brodie wouldn't be doing a lot today and they had kept a low profile for long enough. Now though, they were all tanked up enough to face young Ricky and his perfectly understandable anger at their need to always be drunk. They would meet up with him eventually, when it suited them, nearer the time. The Blind Beggar public house was packed out, as it was most Saturday lunchtimes. The clientele was an assorted mix of market traders, local shop owners, a few goons and a sprinkling of smalltime Faces.

There had been a time when the name Williams would have afforded them a warm welcome here; free drinks, a decent spot at the bar and the respect their name used to command. Now they were basically being tolerated.

With the drink, mixed with the speed that was coursing through their veins, they felt the cold-shoulder treatment afforded them far more acutely than it actually warranted. They were aware of how far they had sunk and, today more than usual, it really galled them. Seeing people who had once broken their necks for a glimpse of them, who had drunk with them, basking in their little bit of reflected glory, now blanking them so deliberately and, worse still, as far as they were concerned, believing that they could get away with such cuntish behaviour, psyched the two brothers up for what they knew they were going to have to do. Young Ricky was right; he was a shrewdie and no mistake. He knew the ins and outs of the cat's arse where Brodie and Spider was concerned and he had the edge on his brothers because he not only retained information, he also had the ability to put it to good use. He was a rising star all right and this shower of shite would soon realise that and mend their ways. Ricky was right, they had to do something spectacular, something audacious to get their name back where it belonged.

Tommy stared across the bar at a good-looking boy in his middle twenties. He was what they would term a lump, meaning he was bigger than the average, and could take pretty good care of himself. Tommy knew him slightly through Cain and smiling at him, he called out a greeting in a friendly manner; he would come in handy one day, he was sure. The man, a young up-and-coming Face who went by the name of Digger Trent, puffed out his thick lips in derision and shook his head slowly and deliberately, before turning his back on them. With that little gesture, he managed to convey his utter contempt for the brothers more acutely than if he had mugged them off loudly in public.

Tommy saw the width of the lad's shoulders, they were further emphasised by his bespoke leather jacket. Digger had thick dark hair, it was well cut and lay in perfect layers; he was a good-looking fellow and he knew it. He was also at the age where he wanted to progress in his chosen profession; he was collecting debts as well as working a few doors and he had no intention of letting himself be associated with a band of muppets like the Williams lot. He was confident enough in his local to feel perfectly at ease mugging off the ice-creams at the bar. They were a handful but he was confident he could take them if necessary. In fact, doing over known associates was the quickest way to make a reputation for yourself. These men were still hard enough to be chary of, but on the plus side, they were not really affiliated with anyone important any more. Digger was debating whether or not to front them up and see what occurred.

A crony of his, Louie Blackman, was not so confident and he kept a wary eye on the Williams brothers as he sipped his pint of Fosters. He was older than Digger and he knew that the Williams brothers might have fucked up over the last few years, and might well be classed as a joke, but together they were still a fucking formidable force. And when Tommy walked across to where they were standing by the juke box and he saw the glint of his glass, he stepped away as quickly as possible.

Tommy shoved his pint pot into Digger's face with all the strength he possessed. Digger had not known anything about it until the glass crunched into his cheek and eye; he was still standing with his back to the Williams brothers and Tommy had the edge because Digger had not had time to even lift his arms for protection, let alone to defend himself. He dropped to his knees like a stone and Tommy commenced stabbing him over and over again with the remains of the pint pot he had used to blind him with.

The blood was spurting everywhere and Tommy's face and obvious anger served to keep anyone there from butting in or trying to stop him. His Pringle jumper was already soaked with Digger's blood and when he was finally spent, the good-looking young man was a bloody lump lying unconscious at his feet.

Tommy spat on him, the hatred and contempt on his big moon face keeping everyone at a safe distance. Bernie was giving every one the evil eye, his fists raised threateningly. Dave had a large knife in his hand and he was brandishing it with a theatrical laugh. No one was going to step in and face that mad bastard; he looked almost maniacal as he moved about with a flourish, pointing the heavy blade at anyone who caught his eye.

The barmaid, a thin woman with saggy breasts and badly bleached hair, broke the silence as she said loudly and belligerently, 'Oh, fucking great. Just what I fucking needed. Get your arse in gear and fuck off home. I'll get an ambulance on the go, and they'll call Old Bill.'

Tommy grinned at her and she pursed her lips in annoyance. Pointing at the door she shouted in her deep voice, 'Well go on, fuck off before the filth arrive. And don't fucking come back until you have the money to replace my carpet. Look at it, the fucking thing's ruined…'

She was still ranting and raving at him as he left the hushed bar with his brother in tow, laughing and joking. Tommy walked to his car without a thought for how he must have looked; he was soaked with blood. The adrenaline was pumping now and, alongside the speed, he was rocking, he was up for anything.

'Did you see that bloke's fucking face when I had finished with him?'

Dave grinned and Bernie answered him with mock sarcasm.

'No, I was standing there with me eyes closed. 'Course I fucking saw it. Now get the fucking motor going so we can fuck off out of it. We have a lot to do today and Ricky will be wondering where we are. The last thing we need is a fucking tug by Lily Law.'

'Not one of them skanks will put us in the frame, they ain't got the fucking bottle.'

Wheelspinning on to the Whitechapel Road they drove off at speed to meet with Ricky so they could all sort out the bit of business he had arranged, and be home in time for dinner.

'What's the time, babe?'

Lil had just finished getting herself ready when she heard her husband's voice.

She laughed loudly. 'Time you bought a watch.'

It was just on five and she was finally ready to go. The kids were wound up like watch springs. Usually, it took so long to get them all ready, especially the twins, that she never had enough time to sort herself out. Today though, she was determined to look her best and, even with her lump, her reflection told her that she did.

As she walked down the stairs, she saw Patrick's face and, smiling at him, she saw as always the longing for her in his warm blue eyes. Whatever people said about her husband, he had made her so happy.

Lil laughed once more when he wolf-whistled at her and Annie saw the deep love they had between them. As always, it made her feel like an outsider. Even Pat Junior and the twins were quiet as they watched their parents embrace each other.

The depth of her daughter's devotion to the man she had married and his utter and complete love for his wife never ceased to amaze Annie. That her Lil, her daughter, could command that much love from a fine piece of manhood like Patrick Brodie made her feel a jealousy that she hid well, but which ate at her at times like this.

Her own marriage had been devoid of anything remotely resembling love. She had got caught out and she had married the first man who had wanted her. She had spent her whole life without ever having a man hug her, make love to her with passion, or even just chat to her about her day.

That her Lil, the bastard child conceived during a one-night stand where Annie had lost not only her virginity but her pride as well, was capable of having a life that most women could only dream about, was almost impossible for her to believe. It was so unfair, life was so bloody unfair. Her feelings for her daughter swung between pride and hate and she wished that it wasn't so. She prayed for her yearnings to subside and for peace of mind. But the knowledge that her life had been so barren ate away at her. Annie still felt the urge inside her that only a man could satisfy. She still dreamt of being in love and of someone loving her back and she knew it was never going to happen. The nearest she had ever got to true love was with the birth of Lance and, even though she had strong feelings for the others, he was the boy she had always needed, he wanted her.

'Get the camera, Annie, and take a photo of me and my best girls and my number one son. Then we'd best get our arses in gear and deliver me boy to his party.'

As Patrick spoke, Annie hurried to get the camera from the kitchen. When she came back with it she saw Lance standing at the top of the stairs in his pyjamas and he called out to his brother softly, 'Have a good party, Pat. Happy birthday.'

Patrick walked up the stairs to his brother and the twins followed behind him as they always did. Lil was tempted for just a few seconds to let him go to the party; he looked so young and so vulnerable it was hard to believe he was capable of harming a fly, let alone another human being. But she reminded herself that he was an accomplished actor and liar and if they allowed even one chink to appear in their armour he would walk all over them for the rest of his days.

The two boys hugged and even Patrick felt moved by their closeness. They were close those two; Pat Junior was the only person other than the twins that Lance genuinely seemed to care about. It was obvious the boys had a bond of sorts, whatever may have happened in the past. Annie thought he adored her, but she would learn the hard way that Lance, his own son, was a mutant, a quirk of nature. He had too much Brodie in him; it grieved him to admit that but the truth was the truth.

Annie stood quietly in her finery and let her eyes drink in the first sight of her grandson in what seemed like months, though it was only a matter of days. She wished they would allow him to go tonight, wished he could join in with the rest of his family and friends. Although she would not say this out loud, she felt this was a cruel and unusual punishment for the child, and he was, when all was said and done, just a child. They seemed to forget that and she resented the fact she had no status in the family to argue his case for him, dispute his punishment.

There was a knock on the front door and Annie opened it wide. Must be the driver Pat had arranged. He could take the picture of them and she would be in it as well.

Jimmy Brick was getting anxious; the hall was filling with people and presents, the DJ kept playing Slade for two fifteen-year-olds dressed as twenty-year-olds, and the buffet was being eyed-up by a bunch of teenage degenerates with cropped hair and painfully new trousers. The tables were nearly all taken now and people were busy with drinks and snacks and were settling down for the night's entertainment. The parish priest was wandering around like a junkie with a giro and the bar staff, like the priest, were already half-pissed.

Most of the real guests had arrived and these were seated near Patrick and Lil's table, as arranged. He had a few blokes moving through the place, watching out for the first hint of trouble and under strict instructions not to harm anyone physically until they had been removed from the premises. Once they hit the car park, however, it was open season but, until then, it was arm up the back and smiling faces if that was at all possible.

The Palmers were there, their kids all getting ready to slide across the wooden dance floor in their brand-new white socks and the degenerates Jimmy had been keeping his beady eyes on had already whipped a plate of sandwiches and a bowl of trifle from the buffet table. He hoped they were not thinking of coming back for seconds in the not too distant future because he was not in the mood for polite conversation.

Things like this could be treacherous if it was not policed properly, and he was making sure that this party went off with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of enjoyment.

The lights were dimmed; Spider and his girlfriend were chatting with the Brewsters, a large family from south London who were into pornography: books and videos of course. Lenny Brewster, an old mate of Patrick's from childhood, was telling filthy jokes at the top of his voice and, like Spider, he was watching the door. Jimmy glanced at his watch and realised that it was nearly six o'clock. Patrick was cutting it fine, but that was his prerogative of course. They were only down the road and they were probably being waylaid by well-wishers.

The birthday cake was a work of art; it was a large, iced confection that was a replica of Wembley Stadium and the grass looked real from a distance. The baker said, off the record of course so as not to offend anyone, that if he never saw green icing again until the next St Paddy's Day, it would be too soon.

Jimmy Brick was pleased with the turn out and he knew that Pat would be as well; every invitation sent out had been eagerly accepted and Faces and civilians were mixing together easily. The atmosphere was already buzzing with talk and laughter and, since he had delivered a few choice threats to the DJ, decent music. It had a real party feel to it and he was glad that Patrick and his family would be walking in to so much friendliness and camaraderie. He could feel himself relaxing now; he had done his job and once the main man arrived, he could cut himself a bit of slack.

There was also a nice little bird he had his eye on; she was wearing a deep-green chiffon dress and her high heels showed off her slim ankles to their greatest advantage. She had a decent pair of tits on her but he was a leg man and always would be. She had given him a saucy little wink earlier and, on closer inspection, he had observed that she wouldn't frighten anyone on a dark night. All in all, he had a feeling this was going to be a good party for everyone concerned once the guest of honour arrived.

Annie saw the man at Lil's front door and for a split second she wondered if she was imagining things, but when he shoved past her and she saw three other men come bundling into the hallway behind him, she realised that her first impression had been correct.

The first man was covered in blood and she heard Lil scream out as she was knocked flying. Then she saw that the men had knives and saw them start stabbing Patrick. He was trying to fight back, was attempting to stay on his feet, but they had the advantage; there were four of them and he couldn't take them all on at once. As he lashed out they were laughing at him. Then she saw the blood that was suddenly everywhere and she fainted.

Pat Junior and Lance watched the gruesome spectacle while holding their little sisters in their arms, pushing the twins' faces into their shoulders to try to spare them the sight of the carnage below. Pat Junior saw his father shouting and threatening the men; the men he recognised as the Williams brothers. He could hear the men yelling obscenities at his father and the squelching noise as the knives were plunged into his father's head and chest over and over again. Patrick was on his knees now and attempting to crawl away. The boys watched in shocked disbelief as Ricky Williams kicked him in the guts with all the force he could muster, lifting him bodily off the floor. Then, pushing Kathleen into Lance's arms, Pat Junior shouted at him to take them in the bedroom and stay there. Running down the stairs he threw himself on to the nearest of the men, his new shirt already stained with blood and skin. They were still hacking at his father and now laughing at his childish attempts to stop them.

Pat Junior saw his mother on the floor, saw her fear and terror and he felt so useless but he didn't know how to make it all stop. The biggest of the men threw him bodily against the wall and the pain shot through him. Lying on the floor he saw what was left of his father's face and he knew then that his father was dead, knew that the slashing and stabbing was just overkill, was for these men's own enjoyment. He knew that the blood and the laughter would never leave him, knew his life would never be the same again.

Pushing through them, Pat Junior flung himself across his father's bloody carcass. Tommy Williams had the knife raised again ready to plunge it into Brodie's face once more, when Dave stayed his hand. Dave suddenly saw the terrified child lying across his father's body and the enormity of what they had done crashed into his head with the force of a sledgehammer.

'Stop, stop it. You nearly fucking stabbed the kid, you mad cunt.'

Dave's voice seemed to be the catalyst for them to stop and they were now silent, their ragged breathing loud in the quietness. Pat Junior was wracked with sobs and he heard himself crying and calling out 'Dad, Dad', over and over, even though he knew his father would never answer his call again.

Lil, lying in the doorway that led to the kitchen, had watched her husband die as she felt the baby inside her kicking as if trying to escape the madness around them. She kept attempting to pull herself up but she couldn't move; she was a ball of white-hot pain and it was a while before she realised her waters had broken.

She saw Dave sitting on the stairs, his head in his hands as he stared down at what was left of her husband's body. He was unrecognisable as a man, they had literally hacked him to pieces. It was only then that she saw her son, her Pat, dripping with his father's blood and lying across his father's body with his little arms spreadeagled, trying to protect what was left of his father's carcass. It was like a nightmare and she was convinced that at any moment she would wake up and they would be going to the party as planned and none of this would have really happened.

But it had happened. Patrick had been butchered in front of her eyes and her son had been witness to it all and had tried to protect his father. It was his birthday, it was her little Pat Junior's birthday and he was drenched in his father's blood. His new, white shirt that he had been so proud of, his first Ben Sherman shirt, was now crimson and dripping his father's blood all over the hall floor. As Lil looked around her she saw the blood sprayed up the walls and on the staircase. She could hear Dave Williams heaving, watched him empty his stomach contents on to the floor. She knew it was all true, she knew that her husband, her soulmate, was really dead and she was about to deliver his child into the world and he would never see it. He would never hold his child. It was then that Lil started to scream and it was her screaming, the sheer animal ferocity of it, that seemed to snap the Williams brothers out of their combined stupor.

Pat Junior saw them leave the house as if they were going for a stroll. There was no sense of urgency, no fear of capture; they walked out quietly, closing the front door behind them gently, as if all their anger had been spent on his father, which of course it had.

Patrick Brodie Junior was still crying, only it was now a dry, tearless sobbing. Getting up off his father's body he went to check on his mother. With her screams still resounding off the walls he finally managed to stop shaking long enough to ring 999.

Chapter Eighteen

Spider walked out of the hospital with Jimmy Brick; both of them were still in shock. Lil, God help her, had given birth to another boy; that was all she needed now, another fucking kid. They had hung about and stayed with her because they had not known what else to do. When the driver had come in and told them what had happened they had thought it was some kind of macabre joke. When they had gone round there and seen the carnage for themselves, it had still been unbelievable.

Patrick's death had been such a shock that no one seemed to believe it was true. They were still unsure, although Spider had identified the body. But it had been unrecognisable as a human being, let alone Patrick. Cain's death had hit Spider hard but Patrick's death had hit him in more than just an emotional sense; it was the catalyst for a whole new set of problems.

As Jimmy and Spider stood in the cold air they looked at each other and neither knew what to say about the night's events. It was so unbelievable that Patrick Brodie had been taken out by the Williams brothers: that it had been well-planned and well-executed was outrageous enough but that it had been the Williamses behind it was staggering. It seemed Ricky Williams was a law unto himself and within hours of Brodie's death he had made himself busy. He had been ingratiating himself with Pat's main contenders and displaying an acumen and intelligence that had brought for him, if not the friendship he craved, the respect that was his due off the people who mattered. The police had made a point of investigating the event with as much fervour as they would a black-on-black killing, meaning they wouldn't break a sweat. Which told them that someone was already onside with the Williams brothers and that whoever it was had plenty of sway where it counted.

'Fucking outrageous. Killing Patrick Brodie like that.' Jimmy's voice was loud and a couple of men smoking cigarettes nearby while waiting for a friend to get his head stitched looked over quickly and, seeing the men's demeanour, decided not to rattle anyone's cage. Jimmy looked bad enough with his scarred face and his obvious aggressiveness and the coon looked a handful and all, but the mention of Brodie and the night's events was enough to quiet even their natural belligerence. A tear-up was one thing, certain death was something else entirely. They were strictly bully boys; a row in the pub, a nicking, and home in time for pub opening once again.

'Had your fucking look, you cunts?'

Jimmy wanted to vent his anger and these muppets looked good enough for his purpose. He was paranoid at the best of times but now he was convinced they were tailing him and he was not going to let anyone mug him off. Brodie's death had certainly fuelled his paranoia. For all he knew these were on a wage and were waiting to jump him and take him out. In their fucking dreams.

Jimmy moved towards them and Spider grabbed his arm.

'What the fuck you doing? They ain't worth a wank.'

Spider gestured to the men with his free hand, dismissing them with a wave. They did not need any more encouragement and hurried off into the shadows.

Jimmy shrugged Spider's restraining arm away, clenching his fists in anger.

'They mullered him, Jimmy' Spider shook his head. 'He was completely destroyed. I said it was him but all I recognised was his ring, you know, the black onyx one. But truth be told, it could have been a side of beef lying on that slab.'

Jimmy nodded. He had seen Patrick lying in the hallway and he would never forget that sight. Poor Lil's terrified screaming and the wide-eyed children huddled together on the sofa. Poor Pat Junior covered in his dad's blood, his eyes red-rimmed from crying and still trying to protect his siblings. He knew the boy was terrified the Williams lot would come back. He wasn't a stupid kid, he knew the score, he knew he had been lucky to escape. He had been told how they had nearly stabbed him and he knew then that the boy would never feel safe again. It was a disgrace, a diabolical liberty.

And it had thrown him off course, that was the worst of it. Patrick had left Spider to deal with the Williams brothers and Cain and he had made a fucking serious mistake. That error had led to him being taken out by a family of morons; it was the equivalent of the Boy Scouts creaming the fucking Paratroopers.

He looked at Spider then as the reality finally kicked in.

'I ain't sucking no one's fucking cock, especially not a Williams' cock. They are scum, fucking Irish scum and they can expect a visit from me in the near future.'

Jimmy Brick was beside himself now the actual events had sunk in. Him and Pat had made a nice niche for themselves and he had liked the man and respected him. That the brothers had the audacity to butcher the man in his home in front of his pregnant wife and his children was, to him, the act of animals. It wasn't the death so much; in their game you knew you were a target but it was the way it had been executed, the way they had descended on him like a pack of fucking animals in full view of his kids. The twins were babies, little dots who Pat had doted on. The death had made a mockery of everything they held sacred; you didn't touch family, civilians or the elderly.

'Wait and see who is in the frame with them before you go making trouble for yourself.' Spider's calm voice annoyed Jimmy, even though he knew the man was right. There was serious skulduggery surrounding this night's work and until he knew the score and who was involved, it was best to keep shtum.

They stood outside the hospital smoking cigarettes and both were quiet now, having said all that was needed. Both knew that everything was about to change, not just for them but for everyone in their circle. Patrick Brodie's demise was going to cause all sorts of upsets and all those who had been involved with him were now either suspects or enemies, depending on what they did or didn't know.

'My money's on the Palmers or the Brewsters. The Williams brothers had to have had a sponsor, they couldn't fucking find their cocks without a fucking guide dog. They are amateurs, fucking no-necks, cunts. Pat should have taken them out when he had the chance, you should know that better than anyone.'

The barb hit home as Jimmy knew it would. Cain was a fucking no-neck and he had found his level with the Williams boys. 'Show me the company you keep and I'll tell you what you are. My mum was a wise old bird and she said that to me many times over the years. Cain was a knob and you know it, but he had you on his side. This shower must have a fucking good backer, they couldn't fucking rob a fucking tuck shop without someone calling the shots. No, mate, they have to be doing this for someone in the know. Someone close to it all. Ricky Williams is the genius of the family and that just means he can tie his own shoelaces. Someone has courted this and used them for their own advantage. The question is, who?'

Spider shrugged. That was exactly what he had been thinking but, until he knew the score for sure, he was keeping his own counsel. Jimmy was sound as a pound normally, but until he knew who he was pinning his colours to, he would make a point of being non-committal. It was how you kept alive in their game and Spider was going to stay around for the long-term, even if it killed him. Careless talk cost lives and this could easily turn into a war with no one involved in it really sure of whose side they should be on.

This was a melon scratcher all right and as his brother's death was still raw and the Williams brothers doing the star turns in this little drama, he knew he would have to box clever for the next few weeks. He was going to be shrewd and add to his crew, his all-black crew and, if nothing else, he was going to keep his businesses in south London and add to them as and when the opportunities arose. Spider knew that anything he had with Patrick was going to be taken away from him. This was what Pat's death was about. Gathering turf, taking what was Patrick's and using a scapegoat like Ricky to further their ends. The perpetrator of this heinous act was using the Williams brothers as a blind so they could then harvest whatever they wanted.

Spider was on his own and Cain's death still hung over him like the Sword of Damocles. He was in a very precarious position; Cain had been in bed with the Williams brothers and that would not be forgotten. Now Spider needed to see what was going to happen to the business interests he had with Patrick. Nothing was ever on paper, nothing was ever straight and he knew that a lot of his private earners would now be up for grabs and there was nothing he could do about it. A lot of Pat's clubs had silent partners, investors who would now want to stake their claim and, without Patrick around, that would now become easy. Spider had no idea who had put money in and who had not and Pat's book-keeping would require the Enigma code breakers to fucking work it out. He had never bothered with the books before because he had always trusted Patrick; he could be a cunt but he was an honest cunt and he was a good mate. The chances were that he was now fucked, well and truly fucked. It stung, it really stung, and he needed to think long and hard about his next move.

Lenny Brewster looked at Lil Brodie and felt a prickle of conscience; she was as thin as a rake and her black clothes seemed to accentuate that, as did the whiteness of her skin. She was still a looker though; her grief seemed to add a vulnerability to her that he found appealing. Once she had mourned for a reasonable length of time he thought he might have a crack at her. A few months down the line she would be missing the old one-eyed snake and the thought of shagging Brodie's old woman appealed to him. Brodie had treated her like a goddess and he knew she hadn't been mauled by anyone else; the thought of shagging her was a pleasant distraction. His wife knelt down to pray after receiving Holy Communion and he knelt beside her, looking pious with his head down as if in prayer. Lenny knew he was out of order but he was ready to take the lead and had put in place a few nice surprises for the Palmer crew. Now he felt he was entitled to anything or anyone that took his eye and tickled his fancy. Lenny had always been a force, a respected Face, and no one had realised, until now, just how big his empire had become. A genial man, he had a knack of putting people at ease. He had a repertoire of jokes that he told with skill and he was good company. He had sat and waited for his turn and it had arrived sooner than he had expected. Now it was here he intended to make the most of it.

Lil sat in the church watching her husband's funeral and anyone could see she was not up to it. As she held her new baby in her arms she was causing not only the women's tears but also the men's discomfort.

She had been had over, no doubt about that, and she knew there was nothing she could do about it. She was in bits but she also knew she had to box clever to salvage anything for her boys. Patrick would be cursing them to hell if he was watching but there wasn't anything he could do about it from where he was; it was up to her now.

Any monies in the bank were of course hers; not that they kept much money in the bank. Not real money anyway; if you banked it you would eventually have to explain its existence to the taxman. Lil was also the beneficiary of any insurance policies Patrick might have taken out and she should get a one-off payment from the powers that be. She would then be expected to keep her head down. Lil was now an embarrassment because everyone knew she had been royally had over. She knew the ins and outs of the clubs, she had helped run them, but that knowledge would not do her any good now; she was old news and she knew it. With five kids and a dead husband Lil was without any kind of protection. Even in her grief she knew she had to stay strong for the kids; she had to get herself together and collect what was owing her. She also knew where Patrick had hidden some of the proceeds from the various bank robberies he had given permission for over the years. She was going to make a visit to his main yard, under cover of darkness, and see what was left. It galled Lil that her life as she knew it was over, that everything Pat had worked for had been in vain. She had seen the fur coat on Lenny's old woman, it had cost a bundle, and she had walked in the church like she owned the fucking place, waving at people and nodding. She was the new First Lady and she was loving it. Well, she hoped she had better luck in that capacity than she had had.

As Lil sat in the church she felt a strange calmness come over her; she was aware of how close her family had come to complete annihilation at the hands of Ricky Williams. She knew that Tommy would have killed Pat Junior without a second's thought and she thanked God for sparing him. She accepted the fact that all her husband's hard work, the clubs, the bookies, everything he had ever undertaken, was now under new management. She knew she couldn't dispute anything, she had no power any more. As she had looked at her children that morning, she knew that she had to accept her fate with good grace and try to pick up the remnants of her life. For their sakes.

Ricky Williams had come through for his family and they were riding high on it. People were once more civil to them, overeager in their quest to be allowed a few minutes of their precious time. Ricky had known he had to do something spectacular to get them back in the groove and he had achieved his objective with outstanding results. Palmer and Brewster had both given him a public welcome worthy of a World Cup winner. Ricky was now the undisputed head of the family, he had dragged them back to where they belonged. As he stood in the toilet of the Speiler in Bermondsey that Patrick Brodie had once called his own, he looked in the mirror and admired his good looks and his dapper new outfit. Ricky loved the new fashions, he loved the materials, and in his fitted-velvet jacket and his boot-cut jeans he felt like a real tasty geezer. He loved that expression, especially when he believed it pertained to him. His euphoria was at its peak and as he sauntered back into the bar he saw his brothers, what was left of them anyway, waiting for him with smiles and drinks. Ricky downed a double brandy and, feeling the burn, he held the glass out for a refill knowing that the barmaid would not optic it, not for him; he would be given the bottle on the counter as a measure of his prestige.

He fucking loved it, loved being on top, loved having the pick of the birds and loved knowing he was being talked about in hushed tones; his escapades being related over pints of lager by people who were impressed with him, were in awe of him.

Ricky was almost strutting, so pleased was he that his plans had made it to fruition. The little sort he had acquired earlier in the day, an eighteen-year-old from Mile End with big tits and an even bigger mouth, was drunk as a skunk. He watched her trying to articulate the bollocks that passed as conversation in her world and knew that these short sharp shags were going to be a thing of the past now. He would still have a dabble, of course, but he decided that a decent-looking bird with a bit of nous about her would look much better on his arm now that he was a man of substance.

Tommy and Dave were swearing their heads off as they spoke with her and he knew that was what was bothering him. Dave, Tommy and Bernie were louts. With Patrick on board they had managed an earn of sorts but none of them really had the concentration required for long-term skulduggery; they preferred to be ornamental as opposed to instrumental and that, again, suited him. Ricky liked being the alpha male, the doer, the instigator of events. He knew his guests had arrived by the cries of greeting he could hear coming from the front bar. He saw his brothers' brows darken; they were still nervous that they might be brought to task over Patrick Brodie. It seemed that the frenzy of their combined attack, which he now knew had been brought on by the drink and drugs consumed by them earlier on in the day, worried them. They felt that people were maybe not as pleased as they were making out. He was pissed-off with them. They were like old women with their fucking stupidity; their absolute cuntishness seemed to cling to them like shit to a blanket. He watched as Alan Palmer walked over to him with his usual swagger and he held his arms out in a gesture of friendliness. Alan stopped in his tracks and held his hands up in front of him, saying loudly, 'Fuck me, we ain't on a date,' then, turning to the henchmen, who were as always half a step behind him, he called out, 'He's trying to fucking shag me. I told you, didn't I? He'd fuck anything.'

Ricky was laughing with everyone else but the avoidance of the friendly gesture was noted and filed away for future reference. He was annoyed to see his brothers laughing like drains as if it was the funniest thing they had ever heard in their lives. That's how fucking stupid they were, they couldn't see an insult even when it was in front of their fucking faces.

He had his work cut out with this lot all right and with Palmer and all, by the looks of things. He saw his little bird staggering to the toilet and, winking at one of the regulars, he gave him a score and told him to cab her. She was not going to add anything to this meet and he was sick of her.

They all ordered drinks and settled down to talk, but Ricky was not a happy potato. In fact he was about a hair's breadth away from stabbing Alan through the heart just for the fucking fun of it. He had been blanked and he knew it. But he controlled the urge to retaliate and, smiling easily, he chatted as if he had no worries in the world.

Lil was still tired from the birth and the trauma of that day. Shamus had weighed in at nearly ten pounds and, as she had remarked to her mother, it brought tears to your eyes did childbirth. He was a good baby but she was still not sleeping, even when her mother took over for her. She still had times when she believed Patrick was alive, that she had dreamt his horrific murder. Seeing him buried though had put it into perspective for her, he was gone all right and she had to try to keep herself going for the sake of the kids if nothing else. The luxury of grieving was not an option for her, she had to keep her wits about her and try to salvage something to secure their futures. There had been twenty grand in the bank accounts but she knew that was not a lot with five kids and a mother to support.

As she let herself into her husband's scrapyard she hoped that no one came bowling in. She knew the place was used for a lot more than collecting old scrap. The dogs were running free as always; the two Dobermans knew her well and she petted them as she walked to the Portakabins that passed as offices. As she let herself inside, the animals lay down and waited for her.

Lil opened the safe without even turning on the lights; she didn't need anyone seeing the place lit up. She had opened the safe and counted out wages or taken cash out for sundries more than enough times and, as the heavy metal door swung open, she felt a glimmer of excitement at what she was doing.

'I'm stealing back our own money, Pat.'

She laughed as if he had been there to answer, to share the joke with her and appreciate the irony if nothing else. She was nicking back money that had been nicked in the first place; this was his cut from bank robberies, jewellery heists and wage snatches.

The safe was empty and she wasn't really surprised, it had been a long shot. She guessed it was one of the men who worked for him, feathering his own nest while he could. Pat's death must have put the wind up a lot of people, especially those who depended on him for their livelihood.

The tears stung her eyes and she blinked them away. She was at her wits' end, she was going to need a lot of money to raise five kids.

She sat on the floor of the office. Cold and damp, it had the feel of the grave. She knew that nothing was ever going to be all right again. The tears were once more threatening, but she forced them back. There was plenty of time for crying in the future, now she needed to make sure her kids were taken care of.

Lenny Brewster was filled with his own self-importance; he had been like a youngster since the death of Patrick Brodie. A born-again wanker was how his enemies would describe him, though not to his face. Now, looking at the Williams brothers and Palmer, all waiting to greet him and ingratiate themselves into his life, he knew he was finally settled; he had taken what was rightfully his.

Ricky was all smiles, nodding to his brothers to make sure they understood the importance of the man before them. Lenny noticed the gesture and knew that the boy had at least a working knowledge of how things worked in their world.

Ricky was already clicking his fingers for the barmaid, making sure a fresh bottle of Courvoisier Brandy was opened and that the ashtrays and bar surface were cleaned. He knew the importance of respect and he respected the man who had just entered the bar like a conquering hero. Lenny Brewster was a legend, more so because he had always kept his head down and had never been a man to eliminate enemies without just cause. He had gathered an army around him and had never once trod on anyone's toes. He was a gentleman, and he was respected because of that.

Ricky saw Alan Palmer hold his arms out in much the same way he had himself; this time, though, the gesture was appreciated and returned with fervour. It galled him but he knew it was still early days for the Williams brothers; they had made a statement but now they had to prove they were consistent. That had always been their bugbear in the past; they never kept anything up. They had been given chances over and over again and they had always fucked up. So he understood the men's reticence, he would have been the same in their shoes, but it still galled him. He was now the family's facilitator and should be respected for that alone, especially after what they had achieved for the men they were now meeting with.

Lenny was all good-humoured laughter and his usual theatrical gestures. Alan Palmer, Ricky noticed, was nervous but then he had just hit the big time at last and that was something Ricky knew about. Palmer was already laughing at Lenny's jokes and as they raised their drinks in a salute, Ricky saw Lenny wink at Alan in a way that told him they had business between them already. He was confident that could only be good news for him and his brothers. As Ricky smiled and chatted he saw Tommy mutter something to Dave and Bernie. Then he pulled a wrap out of his pocket and, walking towards the men's toilets, he opened the paper package up and put his tongue in the contents to check its potency. He saw Lenny watching him and knew he was not making a good impression. Even though this was a safe bar, it was still not proper etiquette to blatantly advertise any kind of drug-taking when bosses were around. Unless they started the night off with it themselves and then it was different. This was a meet though and they should all be on top form; no one trusted the judgement of a speed freak or a cokehead. It was just common sense really and Ricky knew that Lenny was up for a lot of things, but not the Persian rugs. He expected it to be fed to his brasses; prostitutes needed the edge, everyone knew that. But he was not someone who partook of the Colombian marching gear himself. He was a drinker, pure and simple. Tommy had just made them all look like amateurs and he wished he had been more forceful when he had given his brothers their instructions on how they should behave. At times he felt like he was banging his head against a wall; this looked like amateur night on a council estate.

Alan smiled but he saw the entourage that had arrived with Lenny and he was surprised; there were five of them. He knew that Lenny was astute enough to always keep himself safe but all these goons for a friendly meet seemed like overkill and he suddenly felt intimidated. He knew Lenny was a fucking hard bastard and he also knew that he was outclassed and that it was probably his insecurity making him feel that way. But for his whole life he had relied on his instincts; any successful villain had to. It told them when they were sailing too close to the wind and when Lily Law was getting too close for comfort. It was a self-defence mechanism and his was going into overdrive for some reason. This didn't feel right; he felt like an outsider, like a spare part. Like he was nothing. Alan swallowed down his drink and tried to concentrate on the Williams brothers and the deal that he had made with Brewster. His earlier bravado was deserting him and he wished he had arrived with a full complement of minders; it would have made him feel a lot better.

The bar was slowly emptying and it was a while before anyone noticed that Ricky had gone to the toilet after Tommy and, after giving him a coating, had returned to the bar and found Lenny leaning in and talking to Palmer. It had suddenly occurred to Ricky that most of the clientele had gone. The only people left was a small crowd of men in the outer bar. They were large and they were all wearing sheepskins and they were talking quietly to each other. He knew they were tooled up but in this place that wasn't so unusual. Most people he knew had a baseball bat in their car, a gun in their house and a cosh of some description about their person. Knives and guns were an everyday item to these people but he knew that their heavy sheepskins were hiding the fact that they were tooled up. As Ricky walked back to the bar he knew in his heart what was coming.

Lenny watched Ricky as he approached and he smiled, then ordered another round of drinks. As Alan went to pick his drink up, Lenny shanked him quickly and neatly; he aimed for the liver and when Alan turned to face him, which was a natural reaction and expected, Lenny aimed once more, this time for the heart. Alan's minders watched it all without any kind of emotion.

Ricky saw Tommy, Bernie and Dave finally cop on to what the night was really about. Lenny smiled at him, a friendly and open smile that belied the psychotic personality it had always camouflaged.

'You must have known the score, Ricky? You and Palmer had to have known I couldn't trust any of you? You wiped out Brodie and as much as I appreciate that, you took a fucking diabolical liberty. People like you, scruffs and fucking numbskulls, taking it on yourselves to wipe out someone like Brodie? You didn't honestly think that would go unpunished surely?'

Lenny started to laugh then, a sarcastic laugh, a laugh full of derision and triumph. Ricky knew that they were finished and he also knew that this was not going to be a good hiding, no, a serious lesson was going to be taught here. The lesson was actually for the people who would hear about it, who would know that they had been lured to their deaths on a fucking muppets' bus pass. He was sorry then. Sorry for their mother; she had buried enough children. Sorry for himself and for his brothers.

The barmaid had disappeared and Ricky hadn't even noticed. The bar itself was well-decorated for the kind of establishment it was. The wall lights were throwing an eerie glow on Palmer's body and it was a second or two before they realised he was still alive. His breathing was ragged and loud, wet-sounding from the blood that was filling his lungs.

'Fucking hell, he has a strong constitution for a cunt.'

Everyone laughed and Ricky saw that the men from the outer bar were now walking through to join them, taking off their heavy coats and making themselves comfortable. As they rolled up their shirtsleeves he knew this was going to be a long night.

'Here, Johnjo, come and sort these out will you?'

The name was all that was needed to tell Ricky that they were going to be despatched with the maximum of pain and torture. Johnjo Milligan was a name that denoted terror; he was one of a family of Irish pikeys who had a legendary reputation. Few people had met them; they kept a low profile and spent most of their time on the fairgrounds. They were used for a number of jobs, but mainly for torture. Johnjo was a handsome individual with a lilting Dublin accent. He had a way with the ladies and a way with the police. They could never place him anywhere because he had a network of relatives all willing to swear blind that he was with them when it was necessary.

'What are you doing this for, Lenny? We fucking opened the door for you, we made this happen. You can't fucking do this…'

Lenny was smiling again. Ricky saw his brothers' faces; they were looking at him to rectify this situation, to make everything all right.

'I can do what I want, young Ricky. Thanks to you and your brothers I am the only sweet left in the shop. Now I have to make a show of my disgust. Show people that I can't let scum like you run riot and take the law into your own hands. I have to show my contempt for your actions and for Patrick's death, which, by the way, was a fucking liberty. I can't let people think they can do that to a fucking ganger and get away with it, can I?'

'I think the expression you are looking for is, to make an example.' Johnjo spoke with a quiet dignity that always put people off their guard on first encountering him. He was a huge man with thick black hair and a white-toothed smile that always caught ladies' eyes. But he had a quirk in his nature, he had no feelings for anyone outside his close-knit family circle. He would wound anyone for cash and it had made him a force in his own right. He never worried about any comebacks, there were too many Milligans about for that and they were all like him: loyal and easily insulted.

The Milligans were fighters, bare-knuckle and extreme. Johnjo had been an extreme champion since he was fifteen years old. He had fought all over the world and earned a fortune. Extreme fights meant the opponents could use anything they wanted to win the bout. From biting and scratching to using the stools they were supposed to sit on between rounds. Johnjo was a one-off and his talents had been useful over the years; he was called in when a point needed to be made. It wasn't only his violence, it was his penchant for torturing his victims that was required, and the exorbitant price he charged for these services was what made people widen their eyes with respect. If you used Johnjo Milligan you meant fucking business, and no one in their right mind wanted him towering over them with a pair of pliers or a soldering iron.

'Now, Mr Brewster, Mr Palmer is still on the oxygen; would you like to do the honours or shall I?'

Lenny nodded, as always impressed with Johnjo's understatement of the facts and his quiet way of talking that was totally out of place considering the circumstances around him.

Alan was moaning in pain but his open eyes told the men around him that he was more than aware of what was happening. Lenny walked over to the snooker table and picked up a cue. It took five good blows to Alan's head before everyone was satisfied he was dead.

Alan's body was dragged to the doorway by a couple of Lenny's blokes. Unlike the Williams brothers, he was just being outed. In fairness he was a name in his own right and so he just needed to stop existing. The story was already being relayed everywhere that he had financed the Williams brothers to do the dirty on Brodie for his own ends. Lenny would come out of all this as the person who had avenged Pat's death and honoured the man by taking out his murderers. He would be the hero of the hour and he would also get the fucking lot for himself. A win-win situation for him.

'Tie their hands and feet, but strip them first, please.' Johnjo spoke to no one in particular, but his henchmen rushed to do as he asked. It didn't take long; the brothers put up a good fight but there were too many opponents. On the floor, with the dirty carpet scratching their bare skin and the stench of cigarettes and lager in their nostrils, the fight finally left them. Ricky looked up at Lenny and his cronies; he had already got Alan Palmer's firm safely on board and with the Williams brothers' departure he would be hailed as the fucking Messiah.

'You cunt, you fucking treacherous slag. Do your fucking worst; you can't even do the honours yourself, you fucking coward.'

Ricky was screaming out at Brewster; he was determined to go out with at least some kind of dignity and he wouldn't beg for his life off this scum. He had taken a chance and it had not worked out, simple as that. He wasn't about to fucking cry over it. They were already dead men, all four brothers; it was just a matter of seeing how long it took for them to die.

Lenny Brewster kicked him in the face and shouted down to him, 'Shut the fuck up, you ponce. You slaughtered Brodie in front of his family. How the fuck could you believe that such a fucking outrageous act, such a fucking shameful display, would be tolerated by anyone, would be seen by anybody as fucking acceptable behaviour? You stepped over the line, mate, and you are going to pay the price for your obscene act. Anyone with a family wants you lot dead; anyone with a scrap of decency wouldn't fucking countenance you in their company, you fucking scum.'

Johnjo had taken his shirt off and his muscular body was a reminder to the brothers of his strength, and his calmness was a reminder of his reputation as a cold and ruthless torturer.

Johnjo signalled for Lenny to move away from the men on the floor.

'Get back now. You don't want to be too close to these fecking eejits when I start me shenanigans.'

Everyone in the room laughed but there was an undercurrent of excitement as well. None of the men present had seen the Milligans at work before, but they had heard the stories about them. They had wondered at the truth of them sometimes as they were so extreme; even making allowances for natural exaggerations and the need to make a story interesting, the rumours had been outrageous.

Johnjo looked at Ricky with disgust and he swallowed down a large brandy before saying softly and sadly, 'You never touch children, boy, never do anything in front of them; it's the eleventh commandment. The slaughter of Pat Brodie, a good friend of mine, by the way, in front of his kids will ensure I take a greater pleasure than usual in my work tonight.'

Then he doused them in brandy, soaking their hair and skin. The others all sat down to watch the performance and Ricky and his brothers cursed them all to hell.

Then Ricky saw Johnjo's cousin, Toby, lighting a blowtorch and he felt the tears roll from his eyes. Within minutes he was doing the one thing he had not wanted to do; he was begging not for his life but for his brothers' deaths. He begged for them to be put out of their pain. But he was forced to watch them die slowly, screaming in agony, before the Milligans turned their attentions to him.

A month after Patrick's funeral, Lenny Brewster sent a message to Lil saying that he wanted to see her. She knew she had no choice but to do as he asked of her.

'How are you coping, Lil?' His voice was calm and had the right inflection of sorrow and the expression on his face was one of genuine sympathy.

Lil shrugged elegantly and Lenny noticed the hollows in her neck and the way her breasts were straining against the material of the dress she wore. Her hair was freshly washed and styled and her make-up was flawless. As Lil crossed her legs he felt the heat rise up inside him.

'I need money, Lenny, simple as that.'

He knew then that she was on to him, that she knew how he was feeling and was willing to go along with it if necessary.

He had made a point of making sure certain rumours had reached her ears, and had seen to it that no one offered her any help; he had assured the general populace that he was taking care of everything. Lil was at her wits' end and he knew it and he would use it against her to get what he wanted.

'I need a job and I need it soon. I used to run the clubs for Patrick and I was good at it. He relied on me as I am sure you know.'

Lil watched the changing expressions on Lenny's face and hated him with every ounce of her being but he had made sure she had no one and nowhere to turn to. He was the only game on the street and she knew she had to do whatever he wanted.

'Why would I want you working for me?'

He was belittling her and she swallowed down the urge to walk out on him, to tell him what she thought of him. But the boys needed shoes, the girls needed clothes and the new baby needed everything. She needed to put food on the table and pay her bills. No one, it seemed, was willing to help her and she knew that was because this man had made sure she was left hanging. Even Spider had abandoned her. Lenny was a hero for what he had done to the Williams brothers, but she knew he had an agenda and she now knew that she was a big part of that.

So Lil smiled her best smile and shrugged gently once more. 'Because I am good at what I do and I would be an asset.'

Lenny stood up from behind his desk and walked towards her casually; he was well-dressed as always but he was running to fat now and he had a paunch that was clearly evident, even in his bespoke suit.

Leaning on the edge of the desk, Lenny stood in front of her chair and grinned. 'How far are you willing to go though? How much energy would you be willing to put in, I mean, if I were to give you a job?'

Lil gritted her teeth and took a deep breath before answering him. 'As much as was needed, of course.'

Lenny grinned then. He had her and he knew it.

Unzipping his trousers, he pulled out his cock and massaged it until it was erect; he looked at her stricken face and knew he had to have her no matter what, by force if necessary.

Lenny stared into her eyes and Lil saw the want there, and the need, and she knew this was an act of violence inasmuch as it was designed to bring her down, and to break her spirit. Through her, Lenny wanted to shame Patrick. He needed to dominate her because he had never had the guts to take on her husband himself.

She smiled then and he saw the whiteness of her teeth against the red slash of her lipstick. Then she was guiding him into her mouth and he couldn't believe the heat of her tongue as it snaked around him. He felt her pull on his skin as she sucked him into her mouth and then she was moving her head quickly back and forth. Immediately, he felt the release and the satisfaction of ejaculating into her mouth and the shock as she swallowed his semen. She slowed down the movement of her head, sucking him lightly now, and making his orgasm last longer, bringing him back to earth with a gentleness that only made it all the more exhilarating.

Lil had blown more than his cock and he was left breathless, leaning against his desk for support. His trousers were still unbuttoned and his flaccid member wet and cold in the cool of the February evening. Lenny opened his eyes and looked down at himself. His clothes were in disarray and his cock was hanging out like a wrinkled gherkin. Shame washed over him. He had bucked his hips like a teenager, ramming himself into her mouth with an urgency he had forgotten existed. As she smiled up at him he saw that her lipstick was smudged and her eyes were colder than a witch's tits.

'You just got yourself a job, Lil.'

'Have I?'

'You can start in the Baron's Room on Monday.'

Lenny was busy putting himself away and tidying up.

'Will I use the same office as I always did? Has anything changed?'

He turned to face her once more. His legs still felt weak and he could feel the contempt for him in her voice and he hated her for the effect she had on him.

'You won't need an office, Lil, not for what you'll be doing anyway.'

She knew then that she had lowered herself for nothing. She swallowed back the anger and the hot tears of humiliation. Instead, she stood up and said, with as much dignity as she could muster, 'Then you can stick your job up your arse.'

She took a gulp of her brandy and, swilling it around her mouth noisily, she spat the lot back into the glass.

As she picked up her coat and started to put it on he felt the pull of her once more.

'Come on, Lil, can't you take a joke?'

She stared into his face once more and he saw the deep grey of her eyes and the fine bone structure that made her look like a sculpture and gave her the edge when men looked her way.

'I haven't had a lot to joke about lately, have I, if you remember rightly.'

He was on her then and as he kissed her he could taste his own semen mixed with the brandy and the urgency inside was once more overtaking everything else. This time he took her properly. He took his time with her; laid her on the leather sofa in his office, undressed her and aroused her in every way he knew until eventually she opened her legs for him with the same urgency and excitement as he was feeling himself. As she moaned with enjoyment he knew that he would never feel like this again about any woman. She was wet and hot; she wanted him all right. As Lenny gazed down at her, Lil knew she had him. She didn't know for how long but she knew that she had crossed the line and used the only thing she had going for her. How long it would last, she didn't know, and what would happen when he finished with her was anyone's guess, but she had the job she wanted. She had also found out that she could perform the sex act with him and even fake enjoyment in it as long she pretended he was her Patrick. As long as she closed her eyes and pretended to herself that it was Patrick touching and kissing her. Lil had fooled Lenny as she would fool many men in the years to come.

That night, as Lil lay in her cold bed, she prayed that the kids would be all right and that their life wouldn't be too hard from now on. Then she finally let go of the tears she had been holding back for so long.

Lenny Brewster was settled in as the new and improved overseer of the Smoke. He had taken out all the wild cards, and brought Spider in as his ally; south London was somewhere he knew he would have trouble controlling.

Lil started working in the club she had once owned and sleeping with a man who now owned her. The irony was not lost on any of them.

The seventies was the decade that saw the explosion of recreational drug use, the second generation of West Indians were now making their mark and the country was recovering from another recession and yet another ineffectual government. It was the era of punk rock and dole queues. It was the time for the new generation to make their mark and show their disdain for the shambles they had inherited from their parents.

Lenny Brewster and his ilk milked this for all it was worth. They made fortunes on the generation growing up and on the relaxing of most people's moral codes. It was boom-time in the criminal fraternities and everyone was happy with their lot.

For Lil Brodie and for her children, it heralded the end of her life as she knew it. The death of Patrick Brodie would shape his children's lives and not in the way he would have wanted.

Book Two

The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children's teeth are set on edge

– (Ezekiel 18:2)

'I don't want him,' said Rabbit. 'But it's always useful to know where a friend-and-relation is, whether you want him or whether you don't.'

– A. A. Milne, 1882-1956 (The House at Pooh Corner)

Chapter Nineteen

'Well, I am sorry you feel like that, Mrs Brodie, but your son is being expelled for fighting. If you can't see anything wrong with that kind of behaviour then this is a pointless conversation.'

Lily Brodie gritted her teeth in suppressed anger. 'My Shamus is not a hooligan, Mr Benton, and you know it. He's only ten and the boy he was fighting with is nearly fifteen.'

Mr Benton felt sorry for this woman. She was a handsome-looking piece, no man could fail to notice that much, and her life had been hard and so had her children's. She had produced two children in the last ten years and he was not relishing their arrival at his school in the future. The Brodie's were a byword for trouble in these parts and he was sick of them all.

'The boy Shamus was fighting with was trying to stop your son from bullying his little brother; the fact that Shamus hammered him speaks volumes. Shamus is a big lad, a strong lad and he is a lot of things, Mrs Brodie, but a victim is not one of them.'

'His eldest brother is home now and he'll watch out for him. After all, that's what older brothers do, isn't it, according to you?'

The man laughed then and the laugh was genuine.

'Oh well, that's all right then. His brother is home from prison at last and is going to put young Shamus on the straight and narrow. What a wonderful role model he'll make. This is Patrick you are talking about, the same Patrick who was the bane of my life.'

The man's sarcasm was not lost on Lil, but she knew it was pointless arguing any longer. Shamus was out, simple as that. And this sanctimonious old bastard was getting on her nerves.

'Shamus was defending his brother too. They were taunting him about my Pat. He came home from nick this week, as you know, and they were teasing him over it. He just retaliated, that's all. The older boy should have known better than to try and interfere in his brother's dispute anyway. How the hell will that child ever learn right from wrong if his brother bails him out all the time? He needs to learn when to shut his trap and my Shamus did what any other boy would do in his shoes; he defended his family. But my family don't matter, do they? They don't count. Their father was murdered in front of them and no one allows for that, do they? Oh no, you only care that some shite has been bullied. Well the boy had better get used to it because his brother won't be there to protect him for ever.'

Mr Benton shook his head in utter disbelief at her words. He heard this kind of talk over and over again from parents who saw school as nothing more than a necessary evil, not a place of learning. Their idea of valuable information was not dates and facts, figures and problem-solving techniques; it was the law of the pavements. That this woman believed her son's tormentor deserved a serious beating was in itself more proof of the running battle he faced on a daily basis. Just trying to instil a modicum of decency in these children was impossible. Mr Benton sighed in annoyance. 'Well, it's all academic now, isn't it? I would appreciate it, Mrs Brodie, if you don't allow Shamus to hang around the school gates or wander into the playgrounds. He is no longer welcome here in any capacity whatsoever.'

Lil sat back in the chair and surveyed the little man opposite her, and he was little, in every way. From his puny body and his bony little hands, to his small-mindedness. He was the bane of people like her and he was too stupid to see that. He lived in a parallel universe, in a place where people talked nicely to one another and washed their cars every Saturday afternoon. A world where shirts were worn to work and carpets were vacuumed daily. A world where people like her and hers were seen as failures and beneath them; because they had to fight to exist on a daily basis and this man couldn't fight if his life depended on it. He wouldn't last five minutes on their estate and it was because of this mindset that he couldn't interest any of these children in what he had to offer them, in what he had to say.

Lil stood up then and, holding her back straight, she looked down at the man who had been the bane of her life for years.

'Mr Benton, my son will not trouble you again, you have my word on that. But let me just say this before I leave; if you had any kind of teaching ability you wouldn't be working in a shithole like this, and I ask you to think about that tonight when you are driving home to your family. Like the pupils in this school, the teachers here are on the bottom rung of their ladder as well. So remember that when you look down your nose at someone because, like I said, if you had anything going for you, this is the last place you'd want to be.'

As Lil walked from the office she felt the headache that had been troubling her all morning start to subside. Shamus was sitting on a scruffy old chair outside the headmaster's office and when he smiled at her with his usual crafty grin, she laughed weakly, 'Come on, mate, let's get you home.'

Shamus walked beside her; he was a good lad at heart and she knew that, but he was also a fighter and she knew that one day it would bring him real trouble.

'I am sorry, Mum.'

She knew he meant it, every word of it; he always did. Until the next time, of course.

Lil hoped the boys were home; she was worried about them and what they might be getting up to. Lance was bad enough but with Pat Junior now back on the streets and hungry to earn a few quid so he could give it to her with pride and feel he was taking care of his family once more, anything was possible.

She stopped at her local shop and got a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of vodka on tick. She needed a rest from her kids but she knew she wouldn't be getting one.

'Can I have a fag, Mum?'

Lil smacked Shamus hard across his face and she knew she had hurt him by his pained expression.

'Don't push me today, boy, all right? I am on the cusp of a violent episode thanks to you and that fucking school. Why couldn't you just once, fucking once, walk away from trouble?'

She sighed in desperation. This boy would be the death of her. 'You ain't even worth arguing with, are you?'

Shamus shrugged then and she knew he was upset, but for once she didn't care.

All she wanted at this moment was a large drink and a few hours' kip, she was shattered.

Paulie Braden was pissed and, as always when he was pissed, he loved the world. Picking up his cigarettes he swept a low bow to his friends and, laughing loudly with them, he staggered out of the pub doorway. Taking a few deep breaths he pointed himself in the general direction of home and attempted the short long walk with all good intentions. As he strolled along the road he heard a car pull up beside him and, with his usual good-natured smile, he stopped and waited for the men to get out and threaten him. This was a weekly occurrence and he knew that it would be over quickly and he could get on his way. The money he owed was not that large an amount and once he got his wages he would pay a bit off the interest and keep this lot off his back for another few weeks.

But as Paulie looked at the young man who was coming towards him, he was nonplussed, this was not the usual bloke. This young fella had a cross face and a mean look in his eye.

The baseball bat hit Paulie with such force that he was knocked into the road and a car had to swerve to avoid him. The drink he had imbibed had made him unsteady on his feet and as he fell to the ground, the young man brought the bat down heavily on to his shoulders. The pain was excruciating and when the bat was brought down over and over again, he finally understood he had pushed his luck too far. When he was finally dragged to the kerb it was a few moments before he properly understood what was going to happen to him. Another young lad had now appeared and, grabbing his arm, he forced him to straighten it. Then he held it so Paulie's wrist was on the kerb and his shoulder on the Tarmac; it was when he realised what was going to happen that he finally tried to fight. The boy smiled, then rabbit-punched him quickly in the face, immediately mashing his nose, and straightened his arm out once more. The first young man brought his booted foot down on to it heavily, smashing the elbow completely. Paulie Braden was in such agony he was screaming like a trapped rat and people stood there watching the little tableau with resigned expressions on their faces. A police car cruised by, slowed down so the officers could have a decent gander and then speeded up and disappeared around the corner.

'Please, son, please. I can't take this… I ain't got the money, I swear…'

'You got the fucking money to get pissed though, ain't you, you old cunt. Well, I ain't a person who can be mugged off, see, I have what is known as a personality disorder. Straight up, it's a recognised illness. They explained that to me in clink after I bit a geezer's ear off because I thought he was taking the piss out of me. He had taken one of my bog rolls from my cell without my express permission so you can see my point of view, can't you? He was wiping his arse on what was essentially mine and what's mine is mine, and I want it.'

The man stamped on Paulie's gut then; he was aware that this was well over the top considering what the man owed but he had to start off as he meant to go on. This would guarantee a lot of debts being paid in the next few days; the word would soon spread and anyone who owed Mills would be pawning their wives' wedding rings and selling their first-born sons, anything, to make sure that nothing like this happened to them.

Paulie vomited loudly, the bile and beer spraying out of his mouth then running into the gutter with his blood.

'You owed Jackie Mills two hundred quid. Well, I have bought the debt off him for a oner so you now owe me three hundred quid and I want it. Don't you dare fuck me about. If I don't get my poke I will come looking for you again and next time I will not be so reasonable…' The sentence was left unfinished, the threat had been taken on board.

He lit a cigarette slowly and, dropping the match on to the man's hair, he smiled. 'You've got three days.' Whistling happily, the young men got into the car and drove away.

Annie Diamond was washing her underwear in the sink when she heard her daughter arrive back from the school.

'How'd it go?'

Lil walked into the kitchen and sighed. 'How do you think? He's been outed, expelled.'

Annie shrugged, her thin arms were plunged into a bowl of soapy water and a cigarette was dangling from her lips. Lil took the cigarette from her mother's mouth and puffed on it deeply.

'Look on the bright side, Lil. He can get a little job, bring in a few bob.'

'I suppose so, but I wish life wasn't always so fucking hard.'

Annie didn't answer her. In the last few years they had all learnt about hardship. In fact she didn't know how Lil had coped with it all. Especially with the boys; they had changed overnight.

'Did Lenny send any money round?'

Annie nodded. 'It's on the mantle, only a oner though. He is as tight as a duck's crack, him. Even the Queen comes to the opening of his wallet.'

Lil laughed then, a laugh she didn't think she had in her. She poured herself a large vodka and she knew her mother was silently chastising her for it. But she didn't give a toss, Annie Diamond was the least of her worries at the moment. Shamus had disappeared as usual and she swore under her breath. He was a little fucker and she hoped Patrick Junior would have a word with him and sort him out, now that he was finally home. Lance just seemed to make Shamus worse, but then he was good with the girls. For all his fuckery, he was good to his sisters. Especially Kathleen. She pushed Kathy from her mind, she had enough on her plate without thinking about her and all.

'Where are the boys?'

Annie was rinsing her smalls now and her hands were numb, the water was so cold. She shrugged once more.

'They went out this morning just after you, and I ain't seen them since.'

Then she turned to her daughter and shouted at her, 'Put some orange juice with that, will you; at least pretend you ain't got a drink problem.'

Lil laughed once more.

'If this was the only problem I had, Mother, how fucking easy life would be.'

The years had not been kind to Lenny Brewster and he knew that. He looked like he felt; over the hill and short of breath. As he wheezed with laughter at his own joke, the young girl with him wished he would just crash and burn so she could go home and have a cuppa and a ham sandwich like normal people. Lenny wasn't going to let that happen though and she knew it. He wanted his money's worth and she was going to have to make sure he felt he had been more than amply compensated for his initial outlay. He was a fucking mean bastard, and not only with money, he was mean in every other way as well. He wouldn't give a bogie to a dying man, he'd sell it to him.

Still, she had managed to get a car out of him; lease-hire mind, so once he outed her it would have to go back, but it was a start anyway.

The men in the pub with him were all ready for the usual day's drinking. Lenny was a cunt but he was willing to bankroll his cronies and make a day of it.

'Jackie Mills was in earlier and he reckons he has sold all his debts on.'

Lenny opened his arms in a gesture of disinterest. 'So what. Jackie Mills couldn't fucking pull in a family allowance book without my help. It's about time he realised he wasn't up to the job any more.'

He motioned to the barman for more drinks. 'Who's he sold them to? Fucking Jimmy Brick?'

Lenny looked at his old mate, Trevor Highgate, and saw he was nervous about answering. That meant he had to deliver some bad news. It had to be bad news, otherwise they would all be putting in their ten-pence worth. Lenny stared around him at his little posse of mates and, burping loudly, he held a hand to his heavy stomach while exhaling noisily. 'My guts are fucking killing me.'

He took a few deep breaths then and, grimacing in pain, he snapped, 'Well, come on then. Spit it out for fuck sakes. Who's the lucky man who is going to be the hero of the hour collecting fucking pension books and giros?'

Lenny was annoyed. Like Jackie Mills and his fucking debts were of any interest to him.

'It seems young Pat Brodie and his brother, Lance, have bought him out, like. I expect they want to raise their game, eh?' Trevor relaxed then. He had delivered the news and Lenny had not lost that phenomenal temper of his.

'The Brodie boys? You mean he has sold out to a pair of fucking kids? Better keep an eye on your pocket money; next thing you know they'll be round your house half-inching your racing bikes.'

He was laughing then and that was all the more worrying because the men around him knew he was making a mistake if he thought the Brodie brothers were beneath his radar and of no consequence. They were big lads now and they were their father's sons.

And the fact Lenny had given their mother two more children to worry about should have told him they were not kids any more.

'Good fucking luck to them, they deserve a bit of good luck. Young Patrick is home from clink then, I take it?'

Everyone nodded, pleased he had taken the news so well. But they were all wondering why he didn't know the boy had been released. If anyone should have known, it was him, considering the circumstances.

'Bad business that. The boy was fucking well within his rights but you know what the courts are like…'

Lenny shrugged. 'I couldn't help him, he had already fucked up by hammering an Old Bill. Once that happens…'

They all grinned at the memory; it had been a nine-day wonder at the time and Pat had made a rep for himself overnight. He had taken out a filth with three punches and it had taken a paddy wagon full of them to take him in. He was a handful all right and so was that Lance, but young Patrick was the one they watched out for. He had the same presence and the same demeanour as his father before him.

'Bad business all round. I wish I could have helped him more…'

But the fact of the matter was Lenny could have helped him but he had not even tried. He was half-brother to the children Lenny had with Lil and that was what had caused the initial spate of whispering. Lenny had lost a lot of his kudos over the boy's sentence; he had not even had a decent brief on his side. People thought he should have made himself busy and stopped the whole thing before it had even gone to trial. He could do that but he had chosen not to. People were not impressed and Lenny knew that as well as they did. He had taken a few hard knocks over it.

He'd lost a lot of his street credibility into the bargain. This was a man who could orchestrate a deal for fucking murderers and drug dealers, who bought prison sentences for hard cash, brokered with judges and barristers and weighed out the police and the Flying Squad. Sixty grand guaranteed a five-year sentence instead of a fifteen and these deals were only done through him. And yet he had tried to bullshit everyone that he couldn't help out young Patrick Brodie on a fucking GBH. His liaison with Lil had stopped overnight and that alone had caused suspicion. There was something fishy about it and, as a wise man had said many moons before, even dogs had the sense not to shit in their own beds.

Spider was in his local drinking Guinness and watching the cricket. It was a lovely day and he was relaxing with his eldest son. Spider's real name was Eustace and he had passed this name on to his oldest boy.

He was called Spider because he had been a Spiderman fanatic as a boy; he still had all the Marvel comics he had collected and had even added to them over the years. They were worth a small fortune now, to the right person of course. He would rather be called Spider than Eustace any day of the week. But it was the name of his father and his father's father before him so it had been Eustace for his firstborn as well.

His son was a big lad with a handsome profile and the smooth, burnished skin of a real Jamaican. He'd had the look of a fighter from birth; Pat Brodie had remarked that he looked like he would be capable of a row. As his maternal grandfather had been a boxer called Micky McMurray, known to all as Mac, Spider had given the nickname to his son. It had stuck and over the years it had been bastardised to Mackie as well as Mac, and it was now the name he answered to.

The lad was a good kid; he was big enough to make people think twice about fighting with him and he was intelligent enough to think twice before starting a fight himself. Spider was proud of him, as he was proud of all his children.

The door of the pub banged open and Spider saw two young men looking around. They both had dark hair and deep-blue eyes and, jumping up from his seat, he shouted across the crowded bar. 'Hey, Brodies, over here.'

Pat Junior rushed to him and they embraced for long moments. As Spider felt the strength of the boy and his happiness at his welcome, he forced down the urge to weep. These children had played on his mind over the years. Everything that their father had been, and everything he had worked for, had been taken from them in a single night. Pat Junior was like his father's clone; it was like looking at his old friend once more. He even had the same mannerisms.

Spider pushed the boy away from him and held him at arm's length as he drank in his presence. He didn't seem the worse for wear, he could look after himself he knew.

'You good?'

Pat nodded. 'Yeah, you?'

Pat was suddenly a man and Spider watched as his son embraced him. He saw that Lance, as always, was on the sidelines watching everything but never joining in until he was asked to. Patrick Junior had to drag him over to them all and Spider hugged him, as was expected, but the feeling was different. Lance was stiff and unyielding and he knew that, unlike his brother, Lance wasn't bothered about seeing any of them. Spider sensed that Patrick knew that but ignored it.

Still, each to their own.

'The Windies thrashing us as usual?'

Spider and Mac grinned. 'What do you think? You white boys might have invented the game but you can't fucking play it!'

Everyone laughed happily.

'It's good to see you, boys.'

'And you Spider, and you.'

Even Pat's voice was different; deeper, and he seemed to speak slower with more emphasis on his words. He was also heavier in his body; he looked like he had been working out but that was usual for someone straight out of nick, there was fuck all else to concentrate on. But it suited Pat; he was a big lad and his huge shoulders and forearms made for an intimidating picture. He had the Irish colouring: the dark shadow that needed shaving twice a day and the thick black hair and glittering eyes that were a deep blue and made women want him.

As they all sat down, Mac slipped a small package into Pat's hand. 'Grade A grass, just what the doctor ordered.'

'Ta. You look good mate, you fucking handsome bastard.'

As the two young men hugged again, Spider was reminded of the years that had passed and was glad that his son and Pat's son had forged such a strong bond of friendship.

'You look like twins, do you know that?' Mac observed.

Lance and Patrick shrugged with indifference.

'We've been told that all our lives,' said Pat. 'Now, what do you want to drink?'

Spider was already out of his chair.

'No way. I'll get them in. You all right for money, Pat?' Pat nodded and, pointing at Mac, he said quietly, 'He's already weighed me out, Spider, don't worry.'

Pat saw the look of shock on Spider's face at his words and laughed once more.

'I see. So you are sound for the moment then?'

'Yeah, rocking, mate. Thirsty though.'

As Spider walked to the bar, Mac smiled. 'You got the gig then I take it?'

Pat nodded. 'Bought it first thing. Now we're going to go round and introduce ourselves to the regular punters and make sure they know that it's in their interest to pay promptly. I should have your dosh for you in a few weeks. I have some other things lined up, as well you know.'

Mac grinned and shook his shaggy head. 'You ain't got a fucking Scooby Doo, have you?'

Lance was watching him closely. 'Ain't got a clue about what?'

Mac looked at Lance, he was like a watered-down version of his brother; he had the same features but they looked different on him, he looked half mad most of the time. His eyes had no sparkle, nothing to say what he was feeling.

Pat took his pint from the tray that Spider had just brought over to the table and, taking a deep drink, he sighed in satisfaction. He turned to his brother and said quietly, 'What he means, Lance, is that the money was a gift but it was a lot of dough and I would feel better if I paid it back, you know.'

Pat looked at Spider then and the big man shook his head. 'You don't owe us anything.'

Lance watched his brother's easy smile and wished he had his relaxed way with people. If it had been left to him, he would have taken the money. Snatched their hands off, in fact. They did owe him, they owed them all, but he didn't say that, of course.

'How was it in there?'

Patrick smiled, showing even white teeth. He was like a young Georgie Best and he even had the same innocent look about him, a look that belied the real nature underneath. 'All right, met a few decent blokes and even more fucking tossers. But it was OK.'

'Did you get what I sent in?'

'Yeah. Thanks, Spider, much appreciated and all. I was banged up with young Terry Mason, nice fella. Hard fucker for all his scrawniness; he's like a fucking terrier. He took a geezer's nose off in the dinner queue. Great big fucking scouser he was and Terry had a tear-up with him. Believe it or not it was over the last plate of tapioca.'

They were all laughing now at his matter-of-fact voice and his understatement of the facts.

'There was fucking skin and blood flying everywhere. I jumped in when the scouser's mates decided he was getting mullered. It was the first night after sentencing and me and Terry had arrived there together, just in time for dinner. We won the day and shared the fucking tapioca between us. We were battered to fuck but we didn't give a toss. We were starving after sitting in that fucking van all day. Anyway, after that we sort of teamed up; you know how it is.'

Pat stopped smiling suddenly and, looking into Spider's eyes, he said seriously, 'I need some guns, sawn-offs, can you sort that for me?'

Spider nodded slowly. This was a different boy all right and he was sorry for that; even as he understood how and why the change had come about.

'Where's Kathy?'

Eileen sighed. She took her coat off and hung it on the banister and said with her usual, exaggerated sarcasm, 'It's Friday, Mum. She's still in the library. You know she changes her books today and you know how long she takes so I left her there.'

'You're a lairy little mare, do you know that?'

Lil was laughing; Eileen was a case and no mistake. She was as different to her twin sister as a bird was to a fish. Outgoing and friendly, she was the life and soul of any gathering. Her whole life was one big drama and she loved it; gravitating from laughter to tears in minutes or from anger to heartfelt apologies within seconds. There was never a dull moment when she was about.

'Lance will pick her up anyway, he normally does.'

She walked into the front room and, throwing herself down on to the sofa, she yawned loudly. 'I hate that school. It's like being banged up all day in a sauna.'

She was speaking to no one in particular and no one bothered to answer her. She went to the local convent but at weekends she worked in a bookies nearby. She had worked there since her fourteenth birthday and could easily run the place. Lenny had at least done that much for the girls. Kathy worked there with her but she wasn't really any good at it. She had never been good with strangers. Eileen watched out for her and that was how it should be.

Kathy spent most of her work-day in the back of the shop watching TV and counting out the winnings. She then placed the money in an envelope, wrote the lucky punter's name on it and placed it in the safe till it was collected.

At school she worked well and was a model pupil. Her twin looked out for her there as well, but even the teachers had remarked on her nervousness and her quietness. If it had not been for Eileen, Kathy would have been a complete loner. Eileen attracted people and had a network of friends and as Kathy was like an extension of her twin sister, it looked like she was the same. But she wasn't.

'How does she seem to you, Eileen?'

'Who, Kathy? The same as always. You'll never guess what she did today, she went out on her own and got some lunch!'

Lil didn't laugh with her daughter, she found it sad more than anything. That a beautiful young girl like her Kathy could be so nervous of the world worried her.

'Is it me, Eileen, or does she seem even quieter than usual?'

Eileen didn't know what to say so she sighed; one of the loud, heavy, what can I say, kind of sighs she was so good at.

'Give it a rest, Mum, you know what she's like. She ain't going to wake up one morning and be a disco-dancing party girl just because you want her to. Not everyone has to go clubbing and drinking to have a good time. She's just a quiet person, she prefers her books and her music, and that is all right, Mum.'

Lil shook her head sadly. 'It's not about that, and you know it. She isn't right. You and her should be out having a good time together and she seems to get quieter and quieter as each year passes. I just think she's wasting her life sitting in that bedroom on her own.'

'And that's what I am trying to say to you, Mum. That is her prerogative. Kathy's always been quiet and into herself. She ain't silly, Mum, she is just really shy, that's all.'

Lil looked at this gorgeous daughter of hers, with her thick hair and her carefully made-up face. It was like seeing herself at that age and she knew that she had not aged too badly, she still looked good. Though how that could be, considering the life she led, she didn't know. But she couldn't understand how Eileen couldn't see the emptiness in her sister's eyes, the nervousness that couldn't just be a by-product of seeing her father killed. Kathleen was fey, according to her mother. She was a fairy child and those words had comforted Lil once, when she had been little, but not any more.

'How was school anyway?'

Eileen screwed up her face in disgust. 'Leave it out, Mum, what kind of question is that?'

The front door banged open and her two youngest children burst into the hallway and as they rushed into the front room, Lil wondered at how different they were to the other four. Colleen had big brown eyes and thick, curly hair and was all long legs and missing teeth and her brother, Christopher, had dark blond hair and the same brown eyes as Colleen. But Christy, as he was called, at nine years old, was already big for his age. Like his brothers he was going to be strong and tall.

Colleen sat on her mother's lap and began to regale them all with her day's activities. She was a dear child who was always sunny-natured and always at odds with Christy, though they were as close as two people could be.

Lenny Brewster had given her these children, had wanted her to have these children for him and all to try to wipe Patrick Brodie from her mind. He had made her his and that had suited her at the time; with five kids and no real income, he had been a necessity. He had forced her to take him into her life. After Christy, he had more or less abandoned her; he had made his point and was ready to move on.

She had expected that but she had also expected him to take care of them, and he had not been as generous as he should have been towards her. But as much as she loathed him for his neglect and his indifference he had given her these two babies and, for that much alone, she would always be grateful.

Chapter Twenty

'All right, Lenny?'

Lance's voice was, as always, neutral. He was a strange lad and Lenny wondered about this lad's calm demeanour, as he had many times in the past. He didn't bother to turn around and face him even though that was an insult in their world. He was too busy counting up the boxes of wine he had acquired that morning from a young up-and-coming Face who, it seemed, had a natural talent for hijacking lorries. He also, it had turned out, had an aptitude far beyond his tender years for sniffing out quality gear to thieve. Definitely someone to keep an eye on for the future; if he didn't get a capture and a large lump within eighteen months, he would consider bringing him on to the firm full time. Until then, he would buy anything of value for a fraction of its true worth and keep the boy onside with his protection.

'All right, son. What brings you here?'

He was expecting an answer and when none came he turned around slowly, one eyebrow raised, and an inquisitive look on his face.

'What's the matter, Lance? You lost the power of speech?'

Not for the first time, he felt a prickle of fear. Lance was staring at him with those dead eyes and he knew that the boy was definitely a few ampoules short of an overdose.

'You owe my mother money, Lenny, and you know it. I am here to remind you that we ain't kids no more and you are taking the fucking piss.'

Lenny bit on his bottom lip; his fat face was red and bloated and he looked like he wasn't capable of anything that could be construed as even remotely out of order. Lance, like most people who got to know Lenny well, knew that was his strength. As the years had gone on though and no one had stepped in to challenge his authority, Lenny had stopped pretending he was a nice guy. In fact, he was making the mistake a lot of men made when they finally reached the top of their professions; he had stopped caring what people thought about him. He thought he was above everyone around him and that he could disregard the opinions and the goodwill of the people who actually made it possible for him to pursue his ideals. Or, in Lenny's case, earn his daily crust.

'You a hard man now, Lance?'

The words were said with such disdain that Lance felt them as if they were a physical slap.

'You don't fucking scare me, Lenny. I am more than capable of taking you out, mate. Unlike you, I don't rely on other people to do my dirty work. I'd do it meself and you know that. I've done enough of it for you over the last few months.'

Lenny knew the boy was flexing his muscles and he also knew it was because his older brother was home from clink with a decent rep and the hunger for money and recognition that could be the death knell of people like him if they weren't careful.

Once you got too settled, you made mistakes, and one of Lenny's biggest mistakes was underestimating the boy in front of him. Lance was a handful on his own but only if he thought he had someone bigger in his corner and, until Pat Junior's release, that person had been him. Now though, blood would out, as it always did in these cases. And Pat and Lance were close, closer than most brothers were; probably because of the circumstances surrounding their father's death. The trauma had affected all the kids in one way or another.

Lil's love for her firstborn had been the bane of Lenny's life with her; it wasn't just that she loved the boy, it was because he knew Pat Junior was his father all over again. As long as Pat was breathing she would never be without the man she had adored.

Two children later and he was still no closer to her than he had been in the beginning. She had used him as he had used her and he could even have accepted that if only she had not made him feel second-best.

Lenny had everything that Patrick Brodie had worked for, owned, except the one thing that really mattered. Lil Brodie had been the icing on the cake as far as he was concerned. Only, he had got her by default and he knew that and, eventually, she had known that. Once he had laid his mark on her he had not wanted Lil any more and had punished her with his complete indifference. He had used her as he used everyone, even though a part of him, a small part of him, knew that what he had done to her was wrong. That the people in his circle who he depended on had lost respect for him over his treatment of Patrick Brodie's widow.

Lil's boys had grown up and now they were a team and it was up to him how that problem would be dealt with in the future. As he looked at the boy in front of him he knew instinctively that every sneaky deal he had done and every lie he had ever told, especially those that had pertained to Brodie's death, were finally coming back to haunt him. He had let people think that he was the man who had taken it upon himself to avenge that terrible death, to see that justice had been done when in fact he had actually been instrumental in its execution. He had allowed it to happen so he could take what he saw as his by rights. The affair with Lil had been seen as her falling for him because he had been so good to her. Because she needed his protection. Not that his wife had seen it so romantically, of course. She now lived in Surrey with a banker called Wright who had a comb-over and enough money to assuage her feelings of inadequacy and provide her with everything she had ever wanted.

That Lenny had abandoned Lil with two extra kids was a nine-day wonder and was something he would never live down. Until now, that had not bothered him too much; seeing Lil brought low had given him a measure of satisfaction. It had been the ultimate slap in the face for Brodie and for her, because her children were more important to her than he would ever be. Lenny would never accept that from anyone.

'Look, Lance, I appreciate all you've done for me lately and I understand you not wanting your brother to find out about any of it and he won't. He wouldn't be as open-minded as us, now would he?'

He let his words sink in before continuing; his voice, as always, neutral. 'I wouldn't grass you up, would I?' Think about it, you're like family to me.'

This was from a man who had let his wife take his children away with her and who had no real affection for them or for any of his other children come to that, Lil's included. He gave women kids for no other reason than to put his mark on them. He did it to make sure that they never forgot him, even though he was liable to forget about them at some point.

'What about me mum; you won't get away with short-changing her now he's back on the scene.'

It was the way Lance had expressed his brother's presence that alerted Lenny once more to Lance's feelings about his older brother. He loved him, that had never been in any doubt at all, but he also resented him because his mother had worshipped her eldest son since she had given birth to him. Whereas Lenny knew that this boy was not high on her list of favourites. In fact, she avoided him when possible.

Lance himself knew that she found him difficult to care for and that she had no real affection for him. He had been forced to rely on his grandmother's love.

'Pat will make sure you sort yourself out, Lenny. He has a habit of making people do what he wants.'

Lenny forced down his anger at Lance's attitude and his anger, when he let it go, was legendary. 'Why don't you let me worry about that, eh?'

Lance stared at him and once more Lenny Brewster was unnerved by the boy's complete lack of emotion. He was only there now because Pat was finally home and he would be making a song and dance about everything as usual. Pat thought he was the dog's knob, always had done. Now Lance was nervous because he had been working for Lenny on a regular basis and he was worried that his big bruv wouldn't approve. Lance would also know that Pat Junior would have expected him to watch out for his mother's interests, at least. Patrick, he knew, would be after something for his younger siblings and that meant he would be around to see him at some point.

'Why don't you get home, Lance, and let me worry about the big man, eh?'

The sarcasm was evident, as was his complete disregard for anyone or anything he saw as interfering with his equilibrium.

Lance knew that Lenny had something over him with Pat's release from prison and that he would use his recent disloyalty against him without a second's thought.

As he walked out of the warehouse, Lance pushed over a pile of boxes, knocking them to the floor with such force that the bottles of wine they housed shattered on impact. The wine bled out from the cardboard boxes quickly, snaking across the concrete floor and picking up dirt and grime in its wake before finally disappearing down the drains.

Lenny stood there for a few moments watching the liquid as it slowly ran its course and then he turned back to the job in hand and finished his inventory. Lance had pulled a few stunts that were not exactly kosher and he had been well paid for them, so Lenny was secure in the knowledge that Lance, for all his bravado, would not want these little indiscretions coming to light. But then neither would he, come to that. Which is why he had brought Lance in on them in the first place.

But Lenny Brewster knew that he might have to welcome home the prodigal son with open arms because, by the sound of it, that was what everyone else was going to do.

Lil was in the club and she wasn't happy at all. For the last few weeks she had gradually been getting more and more irritated with the way the girls she worked with were carrying on.

This was a straight hostess club, no more and no less; she had opened the club with her old man, for fuck's sakes, and now she was having to deal with people who acted like she was an incompetent. Lenny's treatment of her meant that they thought she wasn't worth their respect any more. It was hard for her to keep any kind of order and to make the girls work the way they were supposed to without her resorting to threats and intimidation. She was aware that the girls had heard the whispers about her. Within days of her offering them a job, the insolence would be on their painted faces. Lenny's attitude would be common knowledge, making her job all the harder. But the hostess had not been born who would get the better of her and they eventually found that out the hard way.

Since Patrick had come home from prison she couldn't help being reminded that she had once owned the bloody club and that now she was reduced to running it. To add insult to injury, the new crop of hostesses were under the mistaken impression that they knew it all. A few months on the game and they were convinced they had some kind of fucking second sight. They thought they knew everything that they needed to know about the life and were now experienced enough to lecture her on the correct way to get them earning.

The main culprit was a new girl called Ivana. She was probably thirty though she swore she was twenty-two and she seemed to have a negative opinion about almost everything around her. She had ambitions for herself and Lenny, that much was evident in the way she spoke to Lil and the way she smiled as if she had some kind of authority over her and the club itself.

Lil was not in the mood for her tonight and whereas she usually listened politely to the girls' petty grumbles and let them get them off their chests, tonight she couldn't be bothered. In fact, she was feeling positively aggressive. As Ivana walked purposefully towards her she knew it was going to be another twenty minutes of pointless griping; insinuations that Lil didn't know what she was doing and if she would just listen to what she was being told she would learn something of merit. The girl was a brass and, when all was said and done, that was the sum of her life experience. She had the hard eyes and the blank look of a woman who had slept with too many men in too short a time. Lil wasn't in the least bit interested in entering into any kind of dialogue with her.

'What is wrong with you now, Ivana? Is the floor too near your fat arse? The punters not tall enough? What?' Lil was blunt to the point of rudeness, as she had intended to be.

Ivana opened her arms in a gesture of futility; her slim body was encased in a cream boob tube and a black leather miniskirt. Her long, blond hair was styled to perfection and her make-up was flawless.

Lil was generous enough to admit that the girl was absolutely lovely; far too good for this club. She should really have been on someone's books earning a fortune and flying all over the world meeting rich Arabs, secure in the knowledge that they would pay her exorbitant amounts for her body and her discretion. That way she would have at least had the opportunity to marry someone with a few quid. A lot of older men were willing to buy the girls with marriage and make them respectable in the eyes of the world, if not in the eyes of their Soho counterparts. Instead, the silly bitch was here and arguing the toss every night like some kind of fucking shop steward. Lil knew there was a hidden agenda, there always was. Girls like Ivana saw everyone as a mark eventually; they used everyone in their orbit through sheer force of habit.

'Look, Lil, I am only trying to make this a better place to work in; we could earn a lot more money, you included.'

Loud music then filled the club as a stripper walked on to the small dance floor. She was a Soho veteran, in her thirties, and she had her act off pat. Three minutes of pure semi-naked pleasure and for the last ten seconds, total nudity. Of course it seemed much longer to the audience. Like everything in Soho, it was an elaborate charade. It promised the earth while actually delivering next to nothing. The stripper would go from club to club throughout the night, with her music tape and her costumes. She would earn a set amount for each strip and still be able to have an Equity card and class herself as an exotic dancer.

Lil knew Soho like the back of her hand and to have someone like this girl standing in front of her, hands on hips and a face like thunder, trying to educate her, was beyond belief. She grinned at the utter stupidity of the Ivanas of the world and, pushing her face close, she said loudly and with menace, 'Look, sweetheart, you are a brass, right, pure and simple. I know you have a high opinion of yourself and what you think you can do but this is a hostess club. Therefore, I can't earn off you girls unless I have favourites, and they would then be obliged to give me money and this would be to make sure I seat them with the best punters, wouldn't it? But what about the other girls, the ones who are not as fresh as they once were; how will they react, do you think? Well, I'll tell you, shall I? They will murder you without a second's thought, darling. Now, I know you feel you are being exploited and that is probably because you are. So shut the fuck up, go back to the meat seats and let me get on with my job, eh?'

Lil was loud enough for anyone who was interested to hear what had been said. She was angry enough to make the girl think twice about arguing any more. Ivana looked as if she was about to cry. Instead, she walked back to her seat and Lil rolled her eyes at the ceiling, making the older girls laugh. They knew Lil could have a row if necessary and that Ivana could find herself on the receiving end of a well-aimed punch. Like Lil, they had seen better days and understood the value of youth in their chosen occupation.

Going up to her office, Lil poured herself another drink, and as she felt the vodka taking hold she closed her eyes tightly. She had seven children ranging in age from twenty to eight and she was no better off now than she had been ten years ago. She had no money, no real job and her son was just out of prison and already hiding guns in her house. One of her twin daughters was unable to talk to her about what was bothering her and something was definitely bothering her, she knew. Her youngest children had basically been abandoned by their father, who would not even take any of her calls. The worst thing of all was that she had a terrible feeling she was pregnant again. She had drunk more than was good for her and slept with an old friend, more for the companionship and to ease her loneliness than anything else. Now she was like a young girl; terrified she had been caught out.

Life seemed to make sure she had one kick in the teeth after another. Every time Lil thought life was going to get better for her and her family, she was proved wrong. Her eldest son was home again and she could rejoice about that much at least. But Lance was once more like his shadow and even though she hid her feelings well these days, she still wouldn't trust him as far as she could throw him.

Lil swallowed her drink down quickly and poured herself another; she had fifteen minutes before she did her weekly check on the girls for track marks. She had never ever allowed junkies to work her tables, they were aggressive, always in need of money and they aged before their time. They always tried to hustle the punter for money too quickly and that caused problems for everyone, not just the hostesses. It was a hard job in its own way, making sure the club ran smoothly, and she had been doing it for years. She had a feeling that was what was bugging her. As she poured herself another drink, Lil heard Lenny's loud voice approaching her office and she knew then, without a shadow of a doubt, that she was truly cursed.

Patrick was trying to forget that his mother was working in a hostess club and to remember that he was on the out and needed to take care of his family. Kathy and Eileen were his biggest worry. Especially Kathleen; she was not right at all and the time away had emphasised to him just how strange she had become.

'Come on, Kathleen. What's wrong, mate? You seem so sad, darling.'

She shook her head gently and Patrick knew he was not going to get anything from her. She had always been quiet but he didn't remember her as quiet as she was now. In fact, she hardly spoke unless spoken to and even then she seemed almost startled, as if she couldn't believe someone had actually spoken to her personally.

'I'm fine, Pat, really.'

She sounded sincere enough but he was still worried about her. He changed tack so she wouldn't feel intimidated by his questions. 'How's school? You doing all right?'

Kathleen nodded and he was struck again by just how much she looked like her twin, and yet when they stood side by side, she looked washed-out in comparison. Kathleen was like a cheaper version of her energetic and vivacious sister and it was because of her permanent sadness. She had a deep and abiding hurt that sat in the back of her deep-blue eyes and nothing seemed able to shift it. When Eileen was near her she seemed much more relaxed in herself and happier but when Eileen was out and about, Kathleen retreated back into herself and only Lance seemed able to get through to her.

She looked haunted and it bothered him and he couldn't understand why she was like it. Kathleen had been such a happy girl, such a chatty child. Could it really be because of what had happened all those years ago? The twins had been three years old then, so he supposed it was possible Kathleen had understood more than they had realised.