Matlock and the Christmas Music – Eamonn Griffin

This week I have the pleasure of posting the second of our Crime Cymru Christmas short stories; this time from Eamonn Griffin whose prison story last year was one of my favourites. (You may have sussed by now that our Christmas stories tend not to feature Santa or sugar plum fairies)

A three-legged fox. Its back left was the one that was missing.

Matlock didn’t have a word for the way the fox was moving. Not hopping, not skipping, not limping, not loping. Making its way, though. Despite the snow. Despite the cold. Despite only having three bloody legs.

Being a leg down plus the additional resistance from the snow – not long fallen, maybe two, three inches deep – must have made it hard going. Not that this showed.

The fox stopped. Turned its head slow, like it only now realised that it was being watched. Maybe it hadn’t been paying attention. Perhaps it had to concentrate on forward motion.

Eye contact. Three, four seconds. In the silence of the night it felt longer. Then the fox turned back, carried on its way.

Matlock watched until the animal got to the far end of the street. It stopped: maybe it heard something. The fox shivered, like it was the image on a paused video.

Three in the morning, as near as made no difference. Monday into Tuesday, the last Christmas of the eighties only days away. Decorations already puckering in the shop windows opposite.

No-one was out who didn’t need to be.

Still, money was money. Cash in hand – good money, too – and a favour owed. Besides, being on the doors was no colder than the caravan Matlock was living in. Might as well get paid to be uncomfortable.

The cold wasn’t the only discomfort. There was a wall-mounted payphone taking up potential leaning space. Matlock had long since memorised the inevitable taxi cards.

Bar on the ground level, shitty little nightclub upstairs. That was the deal. Get ‘em pissed downstairs, then herd ‘em up at last orders to fleece them properly. In a small town like Loweth, it didn’t have to be good: it simply had to be available.

The club had gone through a few names: the Top Hat, then The Ritz back when Matlock had been a kid. Nowadays, a succession of names each ending with a zed. Currently, the place was called ‘Bangerz’. Open Wednesdays to Saturdays: ladies free on the door before ten.

The game had started while the pub was still open: players had been in and out up to midnight or so. Small fish, there to attract the predators. Chum in the water, nothing more. After twelve, though. That’s when it started getting serious.

Three card brag. Sawn-off poker for bastards. This was the town’s game.

There were two working security. Matlock down here, Rocket Thompson upstairs. Four working in total: Mal Brownlow, who ran both the place and the card game, plus a punky-looking kid behind the bar. Keeping the coffee hot, the ice cold, whatever.

Matlock and Rocket alternated on the hour. One on sentry duty, the other on overwatch. Ostensibly they were there for the players’ comfort and protection, but really all eyes were on the table and those around it.

Card game heists weren’t unheard of, but most of that talk was bullshit for the punters. The on-hand muscle was two-thirds for show, one-third in case one of the players got upset. That could happen wherever there was money being lost.

Mal Brownlow reckoned that gamblers liked to feel uncomfortable. A pair of broken noses lurking by the action added to the sticky-soled ambience. Brownlow could have hired out one of the golf club’s private dining rooms if he wanted to give the game a cosseted feel, but no.

It’s the sand in the sandwich that makes the seaside picnic special.

Brownlow was at the table too, but he was playing nice. Not there to win, but being mine host, that was all. He was there for the exchange of information, the connections, the glances, the tells.

Brownlow never had any problems with licensing applications. Locals might not have liked him, but they all took his money anyway.

So. A quiet game to round out the year. Fair and above board. But rich. They weren’t playing for matchsticks or pennies now. There was real money on the table.

Matlock preferred it down here to up there. He knew nor cared enough about brag to pay attention to gameplay. It wasn’t like it was a sophisticated game. You didn’t even shuffle the pack unless the best possible winning hand – three threes, a ‘prial’ – was shown. There wasn’t even the potential distraction of someone fumbling the blue Waddingtons they were playing with while attempting a showy riffle.

By Matlock’s Timex it was past time for a changeover. Matlock picked up the phone. Decided against it. He’d go up. It was better to leave the door unwatched than the game. Why? Because that’s where the money is.

Time for a warm. That lummox Thompson could come and freeze his arse off down here.

Rocket Thompson wasn’t the brightest, but he could handle himself. Matlock had seen him spar. But the square of the ring isn’t the world. That was the problem with boxing. With any martial art learned with a mat and an instructor. Fine for competition, but not always for taking the opponent out.

Sports have rules, but fights have winners.

Laughter came from up the stairs, cutting through the Christmas hits that had been playing as background all night. Must have been funny, whatever it was, to have carried this far. Big cards had been played, the pot out of control, someone having their bankroll wiped out in a single hand.

The music then stopped. The pub had a fancy Rowe-AMI jukebox. Albums on compact disc: fifty pence a track, or a pound for three. It had been a shilling a time when Matlock had been in his teenage pool-playing phase. Vinyl singles in a Wurlitzer the size of a wardrobe.

There was a switch behind the bar that could send the music upstairs from the pub. That’s how they ran kids’ parties, booze-free teenage discos and the wedding receptions that couldn’t run to live music or a DJ. Punky must have been given the key to toggle the machine to play for free.

At least whatever was now playing sounded alive. Not the festive pop that’d been on all night. This was fast and new, but with something of the fifties to it. Heavy metal, punk and rock ‘n’ roll all jumbled and scrapping.

Not that the fox at the end of the street was impressed. It still didn’t move on, though. Perhaps it liked the music. They say dogs can hear frequencies humans can’t. Maybe foxes were the same.

Or it might have been reacting to a new noise. There it was. Rumble and swish. Rumble and swish. And then lights, yellow flecks bouncing off all angles.

The fox watched the snowplough pass. Matlock watched the animal. It didn’t flinch at rock salt cascading from the back of the vehicle. Getting by on three legs made you stoic.

Sound from up top. Someone was coming down.

Matlock turned to see. It wasn’t Rocket Thompson. One of the punters: Hopkins, Hopcraft, Hop-something. Hopscotch. Solicitor. Agricultural work in the main. He’d married into the business: his wife and father-in-law had the right local name and connections.

Hopalong checked his pockets with a drunk’s care, eventually producing fags and a lighter by the bottom of the stairs. The gold of twenty Bensons. Matlock stepped out into the open to give him space to pass.

Head down, out into the cold. No eye contact, no acknowledgement. Matlock might as well have not been there.

He lit his smoke in the pause between tracks.

A new song started: as urgent as the previous.

Inhalation. Exhalation. Bensons and Clipper back into a pocket.

Not the sort to acknowledge the help, then.

Bollocks to him. Two could play his game. Besides, if he was leaving before the others, maybe he wasn’t any good at cards.

‘Arsehole,’ said Matlock. A pirate arr in the first syllable. Emphasis on the oh in the second.

The man wouldn’t look. Probably daren’t. He wasn’t on the money side of a desk in the daytime now. Hardly going to face down a bouncer in the middle of the night, was he?

No, he wasn’t. Off he went, trying to balance while walking both careful and fast in the snow. Hoppy headed for the junction. For the fading spasm of the gritter.

Matlock prayed for a pratfall. Black ice under snow. A misjudgment of the rounded whiteness where there’d once been clarity between pavement and road. Three legs good in this weather, two legs bad. Or else-

The phone. It rang once.

The solicitor turned, stumbling at the distraction, feet getting away from him in the snow. He fell, arms flailing to first counteract, and then to brace.

Some prayers are answered straightaway.

They call it a Colles fracture. Occupational hazard in the security field. You hit the ground hand-first, outstretched. The angle and the force does the rest. Cracks the radius bone in the forearm, so it’s not technically a broken wrist, even though that’s what everyone calls it.

This one snapped loud enough to get the fox to turn.

Footsteps down the stairs behind him. Lumbering that could only be Rocket Thompson.

Matlock approached the sprawled solicitor. Hunkered by the whimpering man. Picked up one of the blue playing cards that’d fallen out of whatever pocket they’d been secreted away in. He held it up. A four of clubs.

‘You hit him?’ That was Thompson.

‘Self-inflicted.’ Then to the solicitor. ‘Get up. Careful now.’

They stood. The man was going to say something, but then clocked Matlock’s face. Best not, eh.

Matlock guessed there’d be another pack of playing cards in another pocket somewhere in his suit. You could buy Waddingtons in any newsagent. They came in red and in blue. They’d been playing with a pack of blues tonight, but that’s not something you’d be able to guess in advance. So you’d prepare two packs, one of each.

With the rule in three card brag being that you didn’t usually shuffle the pack between hands, he supposed you could fix the cards ahead of time, then make a switch. Have someone else deal you an unbeatable hand.

People, eh.

Mal Brownlow would love this. Maybe he suspected all along. Maybe the cards that the solicitor had switched had been marked in advance. That plus the red pack he undoubtedly had would be enough. That was before you took into consideration whatever cash he’d gulled at the table. He’d be working for Brownlow now.

Matlock checked back to see if the fox was there. It came back, sniffed one of the cards in the snow, and decided that there was nothing for it there.

‘Up we go,’ Matlock said. ‘Time to face the Christmas music.’

You can read more about Eamonn at his Crime Cymru page here

or at his Amazon store here

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