(1100 words)

“Rumours are, the Jones brothers are coming back,” said Christine, my wife and best friend.
I put my coffee down onto the table in slow motion. “Tell me you’re joking.”
“Sorry Tony, that’s what Shirley just told me.”
Christine had just returned from having her hair cut by a lady with her ear to the ground, and her head up her arse. But Christine’s hair looked nice, I had to admit.
“I heard they were doing alright in The Smoke.”
“They were, or are, I should say. Shirley keeps in touch with Babs. Says they control south from The Monument down as far as Cannock Town. They’re leaving Smiler in charge. He’s rounded up some new men, … real hard men, she says.”
I looked at my face in the mirror. It was almost white. “Oh,” was all I could say.
“Yeah, anyone who doesn’t pay on time gets three strikes. The first is on the body, so the bruises don’t show. Second is the face, so everyone knows.”
I hesitated to ask what the third was, but Christine told me anyway.
“The third leaves them with a few teeth yanked out – that’s if the boys go easy – or their balls pressed flat in a vice, that’s their speciality. Oh, or walking on crutches for the rest of their lives. Or if anyone grasses them up, all three.”
“’You have to put the fear of God into people.’ That’s what Smiler says. According to Babs.” She looked down at her feet. “That’s what Shirley says, anyway.”
I got her drift. “What about all the drugs gangs?”
“Smiler’s mob have the law on their side, big paybacks to those at the very top, says Babs. Plus, they’ve got automatic weapons, and the cops turn a blind eye. After all, who cares if a few drug lords get turned into human colanders. Babs says they’re always looking for new ways to terrorise people. She says – “
“Look, Chris, I don’t want to know. Just give it a rest, will you. I can’t go through that again. What should we do?”
She came over and hugged me. “I don’t know, darling, we can’t stay here. Not after what happened last time.”
I remembered that fateful night, seven years ago, when four men in long black coats had come into the Seven Horseshoes, the pub I run, at that time with my then-wife, Judy. It had been a Friday night and the pub was pretty full, busy at the pool table in the end room and at the darts board, nearer the bar. These were big, bulky guys with shaven heads, small eyes, thin lips and tattoos on their necks and hands. What made everyone sit up was the face of the tallest, ‘Smiler.’ A ‘Glasgow smile’ lit up his visage, violet scars from the corners of his mouth to his ears.
“I want to speak to the guvnor,” Mason Jones, or Mace, as I came to know him, announced in a quiet, gravelly voice.
“That’s me,” I said.
“In private.”
Feeling nervous as hell, I’d gone into a back room where Mace had introduced himself. Then he’d offered to ‘protect’ the pub and named his price. At the time, the best thing seemed to agree to his ‘terms,’ then go to the police. As if they’d be interested! Mace accompanied me to the bar and stood over me as I raided the till, handing over a wad of notes. Just then there came a laugh, followed by Smiler’s quiet voice. “What you laughing at? I don’t like discourtesy.”
There was a deadly silence.
Roland Wright owned a local garage and, as an ex-boxer, put up with no nonsense. “Oh, nothing, just this all seems a bit … er, dramatic. Like a gangster movie.” He laughed again, though it sounded forced.
Smiler spoke again, very quietly. “People who laugh at me get hurt.”
“Look, I’m not afraid of you.”
“Are you sure about that?”
‘Shut up, Roland. Shut up,’ I wanted to shout.
Before anyone knew what was happening, Mace and the other two, his brother Frank, and their partner, Mannie, had spread-eagled Roland across a table, sending drinks flying, to the sound of breaking glass and the overwhelming stench of beer.
Even now I can hear the screams as Smiler carved a swastika into Roland’s forehead with a Stanley knife. We were still washing blood out of the carpet two weeks later.
After that, all Smiler had to do was come into the pub and it would empty – like magic, leaving beer and wine in abandoned glasses everywhere, like a ghost pub. But as long as I paid the protection promptly, he would keep out.
That is, until they decided they needed a new centre to run their protection ‘business’ from. The Seven Horseshoes’ back room would do nicely they figured, and they were even good enough to throw in our ‘protection’ for free. Generous to a fault, those guys. Judy couldn’t stand all their comings and goings and upped sticks, leaving me in the lurch. That was the end of our marriage.
So, we’d closed early ‘due to unforeseen circumstances,’ then I’d pulled some trunks and flat-packed cardboard boxes from the loft for our clothes and to make up for our books. Tomorrow I’d call on some friends to come and help us pack. We could be out by the weekend and I’d have the pub boarded up.
Suddenly, Christine appeared at the door, laughing. “Tony, come and look at this!”
I was shocked. What could possibly be funny at a time like this?
In the living room, the TV showed a burning car, or what was left of it. “The west-bound stretch of the M4 between Reading and Newbury has been closed after an improvised explosive device detonated under a car carrying the infamous Jones brothers … Mason and Frank … bodies incinerated … identified by dental records … the police have it on good authority … carried out by a drugs gang known as The Philanthropists ….”
I don’t ever remember feeling so happy. We leapt up and down, laughing and cheering for several minutes, until the phone rang. It’d be my cousin, Barry, wanting to revel in the good news with us.
I answered. “Hello.”
A quiet, familiar voice spoke. “Hello, Tony, it’s Smiler. I’m on my way to see you. Five minutes. We need to have a little chat. Make sure you answer the door. You know I don’t like discourtesy.” The phone went dead.
I became aware of Christine, “Tony … Tony, are you OK?” Then everything became a blur.

Featured in the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories

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