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52

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 dont 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 wont help your facial-recognition faculties.

Morris frowned, his glass inches from his mouth. What?

If youre pissed as a fart youre 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 didnt 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 didnt 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, Ive slowed down a bit, said Nightingale. Got caught over the limit; my case is up soon.

Morris grimaced sympathetically. They dont mess about these days, he said. They take away your licence, and worse. He chuckled. Thatd be a laugh, wouldnt it, if we were both inside?

Bloody hilarious, scowled Nightingale. But Ive got a plan. Listen, youre not winding me up here, are you, Eddie?

What do you mean?

This alibi business. I dont want to find out that youre wasting my time.

My time and my money, said Morris. Youre not doing this for free, are you?

Im 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 cant 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. Im sure the cops showed her my picture. I wasnt there, Jack. I swear, on my mothers life.

Last I heard, you were an orphan, same as me.

Its an expression, said Morris. That Islington burglary wasnt down to me.

What about the others? Theyre charging you with more than a dozen, right? Same MO. Did you do any of them?

Morris grinned. Best you dont go there, Jack, he said. But theyre the ones putting all their eggs in one basket. If I can duck the Islington job, the whole case falls. Thats what my lawyer says, anyway.

I hope youre 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 mans 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 Nightingales. His rancid breath made Nightingales stomach churn but he kept on smiling. If you give me a tenner, Ill say I did, he growled.

Thats not what Im after, said Nightingale. He looked across at Morris. You sure?

A thousand per cent, said Morris. He jabbed a finger at the old mans 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 youd given me a fiver I might have remembered you.

The landlord, a balding man in his fifties with a boxers nose, appeared at the bar. He pointed a warning finger at the old man. You, out! he shouted. Ive 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.

Hes not even homeless, that one, said the landlord. Hes 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 doesnt 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.

Theyd have come in during the daytime and showed your picture to the staff, said Nightingale. Theyd have needed to clear overtime for an evening visit and I doubt they think youre 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 theyre more likely to recognise you in the flesh than from a photograph.

Maybe, said Morris. But I saw that old geezer and he didnt remember me.

I doubt that hed remember his own name, said Nightingale.

If we dont find someone to confirm I was here, theyll put me away.

Dont worry.

Thats easy for you to say, Jack. Youre not the one theyll send down.

Therere worse things than prison, Eddie, said Nightingale. He raised his bottle of Corona. Relax. This is only Plan A.

Whats Plan B?

Lets 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, Im pretty sure I asked her if she wanted a drink.

Pretty sure? Whats with you, Eddie? Are you getting early Alzheimers?

Id had a few drinks so my memorys hazy, said Morris. He wagged his finger at the blonde. No, Im sure. She was here.

Dont suppose you can remember her name?

Morris shrugged. I dont 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 names 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 crows feet starting to spread around her eyes and the beginnings of a double chin, but her green eyes sparkled like a teenagers.

Its not a line, said Nightingale. I really want to know. Specifically, three weeks ago.

The blonde looked over Nightingales shoulder and saw Morris staring at them. Her face fell. Youre 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, youve pulled. Like a bloody teenager. She put up her hand. If hes with you, I think youd better just go now.

Im helping him out, thats all, said Nightingale. Three weeks ago today, right? About this time?

I didnt exactly write it down in my Filofax, but Im in here every Tuesday after work. Girls night out.

Ladies, you dont know how happy that makes me, said Nightingale. Do you mind me asking where it is you work?

I dont mind because, if I tell you, youll almost certainly stop bothering me. She sipped her white wine and watched him with amused eyes. Im with the Crown Prosecution Service, she said.

Nightingale grinned. This gets better and better, he said. He took out his wallet. Id 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 womans business card in his wallet and the satisfying warm feeling of a job well done.

Youre 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 mans shoulder and gripped tightly. Funny you should say that, Eddie, he said. There is something you can do for me.


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