N ightingale nodded at the two men in suits standing by the one-armed bandit in the corner of the pub. They had both put their briefcases on the floor and balanced stacks of pound coins on top of the machine. ‘What about those two, Eddie?’ he asked.
Eddie Morris shook his head. ‘Nah, I don’t think so.’ He took a gulp of lager.
‘Go easy on the old amber nectar,’ said Nightingale. ‘This could take a long time and increasing your alcohol intake won’t help your facial-recognition faculties.’
Morris frowned, his glass inches from his mouth. ‘What?’
‘If you’re pissed as a fart you’re not going to recognise anyone,’ said Nightingale.
They were in a pub a short walk from Elephant and Castle Tube station. It was where Morris had said he was on the evening that a house in Islington had been burgled. The police didn’t believe his story and after spending two hours looking in vain for anyone who remembered Morris, Nightingale was starting to think that perhaps they were right. The landlord had said he didn’t remember Morris, and so had the three members of staff, two of whom had been behind the bar the night that Morris claimed to have been there. But Morris was insisting that he was innocent and Nightingale was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, for a while longer at least.
‘I can handle my beer,’ said Morris. He nodded at the bottle of Corona that Nightingale was holding. ‘You used to be a bit of a drinker, as I remember.’
‘Yeah, I’ve slowed down a bit,’ said Nightingale. ‘Got caught over the limit; my case is up soon.’
Morris grimaced sympathetically. ‘They don’t mess about these days,’ he said. ‘They take away your licence, and worse.’ He chuckled. ‘That’d be a laugh, wouldn’t it, if we were both inside?’
‘Bloody hilarious,’ scowled Nightingale. ‘But I’ve got a plan. Listen, you’re not winding me up here, are you, Eddie?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘This alibi business. I don’t want to find out that you’re wasting my time.’
‘My time and my money,’ said Morris. ‘You’re not doing this for free, are you?’
‘I’m just saying that if you did it, you might be better off simply admitting it.’
‘What do you want me to do, cross my heart and hope to die? Three weeks ago, I was in here drinking. And while I was drinking in here that teacher and her husband were burgled in Islington. I can’t have been in two places at once, can I? Stands to reason.’
‘But the teacher identified you, right?’
‘She saw the guy from the back as he was running away. She picked me out of the line-up but I reckon she had help, if you get my drift. I’m sure the cops showed her my picture. I wasn’t there, Jack. I swear, on my mother’s life.’
‘Last I heard, you were an orphan, same as me.’
‘It’s an expression,’ said Morris. ‘That Islington burglary wasn’t down to me.’
‘What about the others? They’re charging you with more than a dozen, right? Same MO. Did you do any of them?’
Morris grinned. ‘Best you don’t go there, Jack,’ he said. ‘But they’re the ones putting all their eggs in one basket. If I can duck the Islington job, the whole case falls. That’s what my lawyer says, anyway.’
‘I hope you’re right,’ said Nightingale. He nodded at a grizzled old man in a worn sheepskin jacket who had just come in through the door, holding several copies of the Big Issue. He had a long grey beard and a bushy moustache and cheeks that were flecked with broken veins. ‘Him?’
Morris made a fist of his right hand. ‘Yes!’ he hissed. ‘Tried to sell me his comic and I told him where to shove it.’
Nightingale waved the old man over to where they were standing at the bar. They could smell the man’s body odour before he got within six feet of them and by the time he stood in front of them, grinning toothlessly, they had to fight the urge to retch.
He held out a copy of the magazine. ‘ Big Issue,’ he said.
Nightingale fished a two-pound coin from his pocket and gave it to the man. ‘Quick question for you, mate,’ he said, taking a magazine. ‘Do you recognise my friend here?’
The old man screwed up his eyes as if he was looking into the sun. ‘Him?’ He shook his head. ‘Nah.’
Nightingale gave him a second coin. ‘Have a better look, mate,’ he said. ‘Three weeks ago. About this time. Standing right here, he was.’
The old man pocketed the coin, stared at Morris, then shook his head emphatically. ‘Nah.’ He started to turn away but Nightingale grabbed his arm.
‘Are you sure?’
The old man put his face close to Nightingale’s. His rancid breath made Nightingale’s stomach churn but he kept on smiling. ‘If you give me a tenner, I’ll say I did,’ he growled.
‘That’s not what I’m after,’ said Nightingale. He looked across at Morris. ‘You sure?’
‘A thousand per cent,’ said Morris. He jabbed a finger at the old man’s face. ‘You tried to sell me a copy and I told you to sod off.’
‘You and a hundred others,’ said the old man. He coughed and a wave of foul-smelling breath washed over Nightingale and Morris. ‘See now, if you’d given me a fiver I might have remembered you.’
The landlord, a balding man in his fifties with a boxer’s nose, appeared at the bar. He pointed a warning finger at the old man. ‘You, out!’ he shouted. ‘I’ve told you before. If you want to sell it, sell it outside.’
The old man cursed and walked away, clutching his magazines to his chest.
‘He’s not even homeless, that one,’ said the landlord. ‘He’s shacked up with a woman on benefits down the road. Any money he gets he spends on booze.’
‘Good for business, then,’ said Nightingale.
‘He doesn’t buy it here,’ said the landlord contemptuously. ‘Goes straight to the off-licence.’ He walked away to serve a group of businessmen.
‘This is a bloody nonsense,’ said Morris. He took a long pull on his pint and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
‘Give it time,’ said Nightingale.
‘The cops have already been in,’ said Morris.
‘They’d have come in during the daytime and showed your picture to the staff,’ said Nightingale. ‘They’d have needed to clear overtime for an evening visit and I doubt they think you’re important enough for that. People are creatures of habit for the most part. There are mid-week drinkers, weekend drinkers, daytime drinkers and evening drinkers. If someone was in here the Tuesday night you were here, they might well be in tonight. And they’re more likely to recognise you in the flesh than from a photograph.’
‘Maybe,’ said Morris. ‘But I saw that old geezer and he didn’t remember me.’
‘I doubt that he’d remember his own name,’ said Nightingale.
‘If we don’t find someone to confirm I was here, they’ll put me away.’
‘That’s easy for you to say, Jack. You’re not the one they’ll send down.’
‘There’re worse things than prison, Eddie,’ said Nightingale. He raised his bottle of Corona. ‘Relax. This is only Plan A.’
‘What’s Plan B?’
‘Let’s wait and see how Plan A works out.’
Two women walked into the pub and went to the far end of the bar. One had shoulder-length blonde hair, and the other a chestnut bob. Both had long coats and were carrying battered leather briefcases. Morris frowned as he looked over at them.
‘Recognise them?’ asked Nightingale.
‘The blonde, I think,’ said Morris. He scratched his chin. ‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure I asked her if she wanted a drink.’
‘Pretty sure? What’s with you, Eddie? Are you getting early Alzheimer’s?’
‘I’d had a few drinks so my memory’s hazy,’ said Morris. He wagged his finger at the blonde. ‘No, I’m sure. She was here.’
‘Don’t suppose you can remember her name?’
Morris shrugged. ‘I don’t think we got that far,’ he said.
Nightingale put down his drink ‘All right, you stay put.’
He walked over to the two women. A barman was giving them two large glasses of wine.
‘Hello, ladies,’ said Nightingale.
The brunette looked him up and down and smiled. ‘Hello, yourself.’
‘The name’s Jack,’ he said. ‘I know this is going to sound corny, but do you come here often?’
The blonde raised her eyebrows and the brunette chuckled. ‘Does that line ever work?’ asked the blonde. She was in her late thirties, with crow’s feet starting to spread around her eyes and the beginnings of a double chin, but her green eyes sparkled like a teenager’s.
‘It’s not a line,’ said Nightingale. ‘I really want to know. Specifically, three weeks ago.’
The blonde looked over Nightingale’s shoulder and saw Morris staring at them. Her face fell. ‘You’re not with him, are you?’
‘Why?’ asked Nightingale. ‘Do you know him?’
She nodded. ‘He came on to me. Three weeks ago. As subtle as a freight train.’ She looked across at her friend. ‘You know what he said? “Get your coat, you’ve pulled.” Like a bloody teenager.’ She put up her hand. ‘If he’s with you, I think you’d better just go now.’
‘I’m helping him out, that’s all,’ said Nightingale. ‘Three weeks ago today, right? About this time?’
‘I didn’t exactly write it down in my Filofax, but I’m in here every Tuesday after work. Girls’ night out.’
‘Ladies, you don’t know how happy that makes me,’ said Nightingale. ‘Do you mind me asking where it is you work?’
‘I don’t mind because, if I tell you, you’ll almost certainly stop bothering me.’ She sipped her white wine and watched him with amused eyes. ‘I’m with the Crown Prosecution Service,’ she said.
Nightingale grinned. ‘This gets better and better,’ he said. He took out his wallet. ‘I’d like to buy you two ladies a drink. Whatever you fancy.’
The blonde winked at her friend. ‘Champagne?’ she said.
The friend nodded enthusiastically. ‘Bollinger?’
‘You read my mind.’ She looked expectantly at Nightingale.
Nightingale waved his credit card at the barman. ‘Bottle of Bollinger,’ he said. ‘And a receipt.’
When Nightingale left the pub with Morris an hour later, he had the woman’s business card in his wallet and the satisfying warm feeling of a job well done.
‘You’re a star, Jack,’ said Morris, slapping him on the back. ‘An absolute star. If you need anything, just ask.’
Nightingale put his hand on the man’s shoulder and gripped tightly. ‘Funny you should say that, Eddie,’ he said. ‘There is something you can do for me.’