Perry took a collection of silk flies round to Mary who sold them for him at the bar. It wasn’t a roaring trade but a few quid was better than nothing.
“They’re so pretty,” Priscilla said, admiring one with iridescent blue-green feather wings. “You should make necklaces from them, Perry. They’d sell like hotcakes down the market. You’d have to take the hooks out though.”
They wouldn’t be flies then, Perry thought. They’d just be ornamental bits of feather and thread. As fishing flies, they had a purpose.
“At least you should sell them as lucky fishing flies,” Priscilla continued. “Anglers are superstitious, aren’t they? I bet they’d pay more if they thought there was a gypsy’s charm on them.”
Perry forbore to point out that he wasn’t a gypsy. People got the idea that since he lived on a boat, he must have Romany blood. He didn’t really know what his blood was, but he doubted it was anything like that. Not if King John, Bessie and the rest of the crew were anything to go by.
It had taken him three rounds to finally shake the two of them off last night, though he wasn’t convinced that King John had taken no for an answer. The White Stag had been full of the usual crowd, and they’d been huddled around a little table in a quiet nook, with King John explaining the plans. It was almost like the good old days, except they’d never been good.
Perry had also felt uneasy when he spotted Damon across the room, though Damon didn’t see him. There was only one reason someone like Damon would bother going drinking in a dive like the Stag, when he had free beer on tap in his sister’s pub. Perry watched Damon meeting up with a tattooed bloke with dreadlocks and talking with him briefly. There was an exchange, and then they both left. It was crudely done, Perry had considered.
He tuned back into King John, still rattling on about his grand scheme. They’d been casing a jeweller of all things, in Witney. Old Owen could break the safe but they needed to get into the place.
There’d be all sorts of alarms, Perry had pointed out. It wasn’t like the old days, everything was wired up now. Especially a jeweller’s.
King John had dismissed these concerns. They had a new fellow called Colin who managed all that. An electronics whizkid, King John described him as. Colin had said the type of alarm was child’s play to disconnect, and that had been enough to convince the others. Baubles were much easier to fence. The electronics trade, the Company’s speciality, was declining. Cars all came with CD players these days and everyone wanted a brand new TV. Only a junkie would filch that gear now, the returns just weren’t worth it unless you were desperate.
“There’s no respect for anything older,” King John had said, shaking his head sadly.
“No respect,” Old Owen had echoed.
Either way, Perry wasn’t interested in helping out. He was content with his situation. He could always do with more money – the boat was going to need a new engine come winter – but he wasn’t desperate enough to get embroiled in one of King John’s schemes.
“You’ll have to find someone else.” Perry refused to help. They must have been using someone else all these years.
“Like I said, we tried training up the boy. But he’s not got your touch, Beck.” The jeweller would be a major job for them and they didn’t want to take any risks.
But Perry was resolute. “It’s not for me.”
Now he was rid of them, sitting peacefully by himself in the Boatswain, he found himself idly wondering how Priscilla might react if he gave her a diamond necklace. Likely she’d guess it was stolen.
Mary joined Priscilla behind the bar. It was quiet that evening so they hardly needed two people serving. Ray had taken the night off and had gone to the greyhounds with a friend. “I was just telling Perry that he ought to sell his fishing flies down at the market. Don’t you think so? You know what, Frankie Goodlock’s got a stall at the Midsummer Festival. I bet she’d put some out for you if you asked, Perry.”
“It’s a good idea,” Mary agreed. “That crowd would pay more than anglers.”
The Midsummer Festival was a hippy, eco event with folk bands and people selling joss sticks, tie-dye t-shirts and purported organic goods. Frankie had hopes of drumming up business for her exotic plants under the guise of “mystic flora”. Perry, like Barney, had been planning to give the whole affair a wide berth.
“So are you going this year then, Perry?” Priscilla asked him.
“I suppose I might be.”
Just as he was working out how he might turn this into some kind of date, he saw Priscilla perk up at the entrance of another customer, her attention immediately deserting Perry.
Perry glanced behind him. It was the university student from the other night, Martin. He felt no rancour at the other man so easily attracting Priscilla’s interest. Perry could bide his time. If and when Martin showed no interest, Priscilla would give up and then Perry could make his own attempt. It was just a question of being patient. So he figured, anyway.
Martin greeted him and pulled up the stool next to him. “What are you having?”
“I’m alright with this one,” Perry said, indicating his half full pint.
He meant that he didn’t need another drink, not yet anyway, but Martin chose to interpret it to mean more of the same. “Get him another one of those, and I’ll have a lager,” he said to Priscilla who flashed him a smile and went to pull the pints.
“Not gone down for the holidays, then?” she asked Martin as she put the drinks down in front of the two men. The university had just broken up for the year and the town was emptied of students. They’d be replaced by tourists, most of them day trippers coming up in coaches from London.
“No. I’m more or less local, and my uncle’s given me some vacation work in his legal practice.” Martin took a draught of the lager.
Priscilla was turning on the flirtation. “That must be interesting. Any exciting cases?”
“We’re representing the widow of the bloke that got shot,” Martin told her. “Just probate, for now anyway.”
“For now?” Priscilla had sharp ears. “Are they going to charge her? Did she do it?”
Perry shifted uncomfortably on his stool. He was uneasy with the subject. It was all anyone seemed to talk about: who shot Arthur Stanton?
Martin grinned. “I couldn’t say even if I knew. Client confidentiality and all that. But truthfully, your guess is as good as mine.”
Priscilla gave a shiver and Perry noted that she wasn’t a very good actress. “Horrible to think of,” she said. “Makes you feel unsafe in your bed, thinking a murderer is still at large.”
“I shouldn’t think they’d come after you,” Martin said.
It wasn’t quite what Priscilla wanted to hear, neither his words nor his tone. She tossed her head, turned and left them to serve another customer.
“Had a kid, didn’t he?” Perry asked, then immediately regretted doing so. He didn’t want to know and he didn’t want become involved.
“A girl, yes. Poor kid. I can’t imagine her and the stepmother get on like much of a house on fire,” Martin said. “Nasty business all round.”
Nasty indeed. If the stepmother ditched her, and well she might, the kid might end up like Perry had. In the system. It was even worse for a girl.
Another fellow strode into the bar. Barney. He greeted Perry and offered him a drink. Perry declined, but introduced him to Martin.
“Barnaby Goodlock.” They shook hands, which all seemed a bit formal to Perry. But the two others were cut from the same cloth. Private schools, university education. It was a club that Perry would never belong to.
“Not Goodlock Nursery, are you?” Martin asked, taking a lucky guess. “I pass that on the way to work.”
“That’s me. Or us. My wife Frankie and I own the place.”
The conversation turned to Martin’s mother, who was apparently a keen amateur horticulturalist, and her garden. Martin had absorbed some of this lore. Perry tuned out at the words “herbaceous border”. His mind drifted.
It was doubtful that Martin could have related much more about the murder investigation because the police seemed to have few leads. The wife was typically the primary suspect, but Arthur Stanton had been known for being a hard businessman so the Brewery was an angle they couldn’t rule out.
Arthur Stanton wasn’t from Oxfordshire originally. He had been born in the Midlands where his family had hailed from for generations. His father and grandfather had owned a small industrial works but times were getting tough. Arthur inherited it at a reasonably young age, since heart disease ran in the Stanton line and its menfolk rarely made old bones.
He sold it, moved south, and bought a small, struggling brewery. He changed the name to Stantons and started building it up. Among other things his previous factory had made beer dispensing equipment, which gave Arthur a foot in the door with a couple of pub chains around Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Thanks to this and a certain ruthless streak, Stantons prospered.
He married a local girl who bore him a daughter. He wanted a son to continue the Stanton line, and pass the business down as his own father and grandfather had done. He could be patient. After all, kids didn’t come to order. But no son came, and just before the first Mrs Stanton, Rose’s mother, was due to go in for some medical tests, she fell sick.
Six months later Arthur was a widower with a small daughter. He eventually married again, to a woman still young enough to beget the Stanton heir. The years went by and business became more demanding and more complicated as Stantons expanded. No heir came, and a certain sense of bitterness had befallen Arthur Stanton.
The newspapers reported some of this, other parts were local knowledge gleaned from people like Dilys Jones.
It may have been at the back of Arthur’s mind to divorce Sybil, go back north and find himself a heartier wench from his hometown to fulfil his aim. Third time lucky and so on. He may even have been starting to look up divorce lawyers in the phone directory. But if this was the case no one could know, because late one night someone shot him, and his secrets died with him.
Everyone had their secrets. Backgrounds they kept hidden. Despite all the years he spent with the Company, Perry didn’t even know all the other members’ real names or where they were from.
He was nine years old, and he’d been in the system for four years, when the Company came to retrieve him. Black Bessie was back on the scene along with all the usual suspects.
Literal suspects, for most of the robberies in the area.
Bessie had managed to get custody of Perry. She’d conned a well-meaning but naive social worker that she was Perry’s aunt, and that she was sufficiently reformed following a spell in Holloway to care for him once again. The social workers had too many higher risk kids on their hands as it was, so they were glad to offload any cases they could.
Perry was older now, there wasn’t any abuse or violence recorded in his file, so back into the care of the Company he went. He only had the vaguest memories of most of them, though he faked affection for “Aunty Bessie” in front of the social workers because anything was better than the current home he was in.
It was great being in his own place, not a guest anymore. Not having to worry that someone else would nick or trash his stuff. What there was of it, anyway. He could eat what he liked and when he liked, with no one threatening him with a belt for taking too much jam, or forcing him to eat cold baked beans three days in a row.
For a little while, Perry was in Paradise.