Half-six and dark already, with early winter falling around, the last heat of October long gone (and the August fug a smoky dream), and rain coming on, well north of Smoketown, Magpie Maggie went trotting on skinny dancers down through the blue night. Gaslights blooming puffed to life making golden pools but not in the backtrace wynds. He trotted.
Black whipcord trousers with knees patched up, a dirk belt shoulder to hip as was that season’s style, white swordsman’s shirt with speckled silk paisley scarf knotted and tucked, black corduroy jacket with bloody-red crimson silk lining, black clickered boots that ticker-tacked along cobblestonery, and purple velvet cap tugged alow over black hair with that white streak in the forelock--black and white, like the magpie bird.
He skittered, he turned, and from out one black backtrace alley sprang hand and arm to catch him by the collar and slip him off his pins. Hand to his throat then and Maggie was back-up-against the wall of the tenement behind and above.
A face leered: blonde-haired Brinker in a camel coat and gray velvet natty-boy vest, full-up in his shitkickers and rakish hat.
“What’s this, then? A runner-chil’?”
Maggie snarled toothsome and set hand to hand on Brinker’s chartreuse Eyetie leather glove. No dice.
“Maggie-pie, where have you been?”
“Grand Hotel. Grand Dame. Fuckin well you know.”
“Oh? Been to London? To look at the queen?”
Somewhere up above were squealing gramophone plates in operatic waltz, the bitter aspirations of the tenement wynds.
“And how’s the aul bint? What’s this her, Sweet Baba Jay, ninetieth winter? An here’s you, carryin mail to the Grande Dame.”
“Leggo.” Maggie squirmed wriggle-down in his grip. “It’s white-flag both ways, fucko.”
“Is it, now?” said Brinker, bearing down one-handed on Maggie’s neck to bring him to kneel. “Is that why you’re Sneaky Pete-ing about?”
Maggie scuffled in the chipped-up street gravel.
Brinker licked a gloved finger and held it to air. “Feels like black-flag weather to me.” Same gloved hand smacked, palm then backhand, across Maggie’s mouth. And Maggie set his jaw for more and worse, for worse came: a punch to the eyesocket bringing on stars, a tidy blow to follow up to bloody his nose and Maggie was kneeling now. Brinker caught him by the collar, pinched his cheek, playful auntie.
“Did you sneak-a-peek at your delivery? Pry open the seal? Steam the envelope? Maybe you were there when it was written all along.” A swift shitkicker to the guts and Maggie went down proper, guttermud in his eyes and Brinker set his waffley sole atop the side of his face and ground down.
“We don’t,” Brinker said, “Appreciate. Being excluded. From communiques. Avec La Grande Dame. Y’sketchin? Y’check?”
Maggie was grabbing Brinker’s ankle to topple him but only got him stip-stepping aside, but long enough for Maggie to hoist himself to a crouch and whip out his shkelper knife.
Brinker laughed, tapping askance. “Wicked swift, boyo. Got some grapes on you.”
Unbeseen to both a door opened to the night to spill out heat, light, steam, smoke, laughter. Gold-spilling doorway light cast long shadows on cobblestones like canyons on the moon. The lad stepping without turned up his coatcollar to the first spatters of rain and lit a match to a cigarette. He was watchtower along this part of the route, by his own asking, and he had heard he was needed by scuffling sounds and voices in the street. Jackie stayed adark under his cap to let the ciggie glow light his path.
He crossed the street apace in his new winklepickers and blocked the blue rainlight in the alleyway’s mouth and stood there until Maggie looked up and Brinker backglanced.
“Three days to a full Norrie Mother Maria march and you starting this.” He clicked his tongue. Eye-locked the poor fucker. “What might you be thinkin?”
“Oh I have dark fuckin thoughts, Fancy Boy.”
Jackie tossed aside the cigarette in a shower of sparks and it glowed red in the guttermud aside. He motioned with one hand a come-on to draw Brinker out of the alleyway. Maggie flipped his shkelper butt-end up for backstabbing, but Brinker didn’t turn.
Another swift shitkicker to the guts and Maggie dropped the knife to clutch at bruised innards and Brinker grabbed out to catch him by the hair and drag him out.
Now he met Jackie face to face across the street, with Maggie dangling and his hand springing full of Maggie’s hair. Jackie stepped forward.
“If you got a pistol, Fancy Boy, it’s done for you. Hoss-polis and cowards, that’s all that’s got pistols down here.”
Jackie stepped forward again, reaching up inside his coat.
Brinker whipped out a pearl-handled scimitar knife from a low-slung dirk belt and hauled Maggie up to stretch his neck and put point to throat.
“One more step and I slit his throat from ear to ear, fuckin swear. I mean it.”
Maggie stretched up on his knees, fingers splayed in the dirt. One lonely drop of blood sliding down his neck now. Proper shiner now swelling up and closed the one eye, but he looked down at the silvery blade below his chin and kept still.
Down along and farther atop the tenements were bonfires burning for the youthful dances--rain or clear, they’d gather for the slow-plate gramophone grinds, smoke herb, and drink; long strings of fires all along the rooftops and on the widowswalks of the wrecked great houses.
Brinker gave Maggie’s head a shake, a warning.
“Told you you got your hair too long,” Jackie said, unmoving.
“Fuck off, Jackie,” called Maggie back.
And they three waited--for a movement, for the end of the world, who could say? The gramophone out above them stopped, hung silent, started in anew with an aria. Some woman up above there smoothing her hair and pondering perhaps whether the weather was too wretched for an evening jaunt, a passeggiata, down De Valera street.
The problem, of course, was that Brinker’s eyes were on Jackie and Jackie’s eyes were on Brinker and fuck-all saw Maggie’s rising hands. He looked up at Brinker and he smiled a catsmile as he pushed up to arch his back away from Brinker’s shkelper. Black-mooded Maggie Magpie was more cat than bird and woe betide whoever mistook that truth.
He arched, he rose, he caught Brinker’s wrist and only then did Brinker look down to find Maggie bearing down with both hands on the bones in his wrist and twisting. The knife turned away from Maggie’s neck then clattered on the cobbles as Brinker needed one hand to comfort the other--and so let go of Maggie’s hair too.
Jackie took out his matches and cigs and lit another. No shkelper knife for him yet.
It was Maggie that caught up Brinker’s pearly knife and swung it, flashing fast and silvery at him to put him back at bay. Brinker tripped on the gutter and dropped to the pavement. Maggie crouched a moment on his dancers and launched himself low along the street and brought the scimitar knife down, one two three, good and deep into Brinker’s thigh, left the streetdirt in the wounds and saw the blood well up. Brinker screamed. Maggie crouched back, not yet circling and waited.
Brinker, scattling on wet stones and limping besides, got himself up and hauled fuck all away, dragging his wounded leg, holding his aching hand. Maggie threw his knife after him. He clattered away down the curve of the road and beyond.
Maggie went back into the alley to collect his shkelper and his cap. Mud on his cap; he wiped it on the sleeve of his jacket and grumbled to himself.
Jackie, blowing clouds of smoke, came across to him.
“Lemme a look at ya.”
He took up Maggie’s face in one hand to pull him into the light. Maggie socked his shoulder, shoved him.
“Fuck lot of good you did. Fuckin watchtower my arse.”
Jackie regarded closely the nick in his neck, the bruises at his mouth, the blackeye and wrinkled a crooked grin. “Nothin a drop of Green Beast won’t cure. An you can show that shiner round the Cafe Aliados this week.”
Maggie shoved his hands in his jacket pockets. Jackie gave him a slap on the back to set him to march and they started walking down the way Maggie had been trotting. Jackie took out a brass weed pipe from his coatpocket, stuffed it, and lit the bowl off his ciggie.
“Take a draw,” he said, passing it to Maggie.
Maggie took it and spoke with it clamped hot between his teeth, “I en’t cuttin my hair.”
They walked. They smoked.
Jack spoke: “Nor would I want y’to.”