Sunday, 27 January 2013

Jack Horner

“Why’d you want to know about yourself?”  As I’d hoped, the kid wasn’t thinking fast enough to spot that I’d been asking for own name a minute ago.
“I’m that paranoid,” I said.  It was the truth as well.  In my line of work it doesn’t take you very long to start feeling like there isn’t anywhere that isn’t under surveillance.  It doesn’t help that Mad Frankie and his Anger Management has paid-for access to all of the police CCTV cameras either; between that and his network of informers a man can’t piss up against a doorway without Mad Frankie knowing and sending you the bill for having it cleaned again.  I know; I have six from him.  One of which complains that I managed to give the door dutch elm disease, which I’d contest if there was a court that would hear the case.
“Hah, that’s just healthy in this town,” said the kid sounding twenty years older again.  “Well mister, I can tell you that you come in here every Thursday looking right different to how you look now, and you order a plum pie from us, with six plums.  Fancy one now?”
I shook my head, and waited for him to continue.  He didn’t, so I had to speak again.  “What else?  What’s my name?  How do I pay?  When was the last time I stiffed you?  How often do I sleep with your aunt?”
He looked a little taken-aback by the staccato questions rattled at him like machine-gun fire, and indeed he even took a step backwards.  Over in the corner the aunt knocked over a tub of ketchup which started to very slowly ooze from captivity.  She righted it before it got within an inch of the lip and wiped the table anyway.
“You’re Jack Horner,” he said.  “You sit in the corner eating your pie, and you mostly do it by sticking your thumb in, pulling out a plum, and making a song and dance about being a good boy.  Frankly mister, you’re weird, but you always pay up front so it kind of makes it hard to throw you out.  And if you’ve slept with my aunt mister, then it’s a bit weirder still that you keep trying it on with me.”  He was a little red-faced by the end, but a long way away from anything I’d call attractive.
“How many thumbs have I got?” I said.  It was a strange question but the vague description of Jack Horner was ringing bells in my head; tiny little silver bells like a carillon in a morose major key.
“Count ‘em for yourself, mister,” said the boy.  “Do you reckon you’ll come up surprised?”
“I think you might,” I said.  “I’ve got three, haven’t I?”
He looked at the counter, and his gaze didn’t move for a moment.  I wondered what he was thinking, and then, too late, realised that my hands were both resting on the counter.
“Not at the moment,” he said.  “Which is another weird thing mister.  I don’t think you’re who you’re claiming to be, so either you buy a pie and eat it, or you get out.”
“I’ll take the plum pie,” I said.  “Six plums.”
I sat down at an empty table, though they were all empty so it gave me an unaccustomed choice.  I sat as far away from the aunt as I could get and twiddled my thumbs.  The only man I know who’s got three thumbs and is so proud of it that he won’t shut up about it is Jack Crown.  He had a girlfriend for a while, a girl called Jill Hill, and then he lost his job after an accident he won’t talk about and needed alternative work.  He found it, but he’s secretive about it, and he’s a hard man to track down if he owes you anything.  He owes me a bucket and some brown paper, so maybe that’s why I’d not seen him in an age and a half.  But then there were the rumours that he’d found work for Natasha Monkeybutt, so maybe I wasn’t seeing him because he didn’t want me to.  Monkeybutt wouldn’t be above setting a tail on me and thinking she could get away with it.
“There you go mister not-Jack,” said the boy slamming a small pie down on the table.  The crust jumped slightly from the force, and when it settled back I could see the first plum glistening between the crust and the side of the dish.  I slipped my thumb in and pulled it out.
“What type of plum?” I asked.  “Victoria?”
The kid gave me an old stare and, turning away, said, “I think you mean Whose plum, mister.”
I was starving.  I ate it anyway.  I even paid him afterwards.

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