Vanessa had joined the Circle only six weeks ago, but had already achieved the status of ‘regular’ simply by getting into Deidre’s good books (a joke she had made to Phil and Frankie, who didn’t get it). In fact the mood within the group had improved immensely since she had appeared simply because her arrival coincided with the departure of Richard Hart, who knew an ex-copper when he saw one. Detective Inspector Vanessa Winthorpe had interviewed Richard Hart many times during his ‘career’ and she had proved herself to be every bit as tough mentally as he was physically. She had the kind of intellect that could slice over-ripe peaches and the kind of tongue that could subdue a hungry polar bear. He would have liked to have done her harm, but he feared that that was what ‘they’ wanted. Surely the police could leave him alone now – he had done his time (at least for the small percentage of the crimes for which he had been convicted). In the old days, they would have patted one another on the back – one for the times they had caught him, one for the times they hadn’t – had a drink together and let bygones be bygones. The modern police force was no longer full of gentlemen!
He did consider confronting her; he might have done so too, if he wasn’t so scared of Deidre. Deidre had seen in Vanessa a kindred spirit and had given her the seat at her right hand. It was too much for Richard who had never abandoned anything through fear, but was totally unfamiliar with confronting any challenge that could not be met with a punch in the mouth. He had gone out of his way to be friendly with everyone in the Circle, yet his charm offensive, to most of them, was exactly that: offensive. He knew that they were afraid of him, but that was ok. Everybody was afraid of him. He had never had a friend who would turn away from him. At least, not if there was any possibility that he was concealing an axe about his person. Deidre, however, was different. She was not scared; she knew that Mr Darcy would have made mincemeat of him in a fair fist fight. She did not know that Richard had taken part in more fist fights than Darcy had had hot dinners, but never a fair one. Preparation was the key. Shooting your assailant through the kneecap before starting to punch always made things a little easier. Having a knuckleduster on each of your hands, plus those of all twenty of your ‘friends’, always tilted the balance slightly. For Richard Hart, victory was always in the winning.
Maybe in the past he would have rubbed them all out, possibly one at a time, but more likely in a single incident: a freak bulldozer accident, or similar, but his heart was no longer in it. Age had softened him. He dreamed of following Mad Frankie Fraser onto the stage, perhaps after dinner speaking, but Frankie had to leave his old life behind him first and that is what he would have to do too, even if it killed him. The Writer’s Circle had been his first step. They knew who he was of course, they knew not to misbehave, but he did want to fit in if he could and he almost certainly would not have killed any of them.
His paranoia – a by-product of his psychopathic nature the prison shrink had said – had gone into overdrive when he first saw Vanessa. She had not spoken that first week, other than to introduce herself to the group, but as soon as she said her name he was certain: they were still after him. Perhaps they thought he would have forgotten her, or perhaps they knew that he would not have. Perhaps they believed that he would unknowingly reveal something to the group that he had kept hidden from the police for years. He knew she was ‘mic’d-up’, she fidgeted constantly, she scratched at her arm. He was too old a pro to be so indiscrete in front of strangers and it annoyed him that they thought he would fall for that. It might not have been their game of course. They might have anticipated him recognizing DI Winthorpe, perhaps in the hope that he would be tempted into doing something stupid; well, they would have to think again.
Richard Hart went home as usual sharp at ten and attacked his prison tag with a hammer. It hurt – a lot – but it eventually came off and he hurled it at the wall before turning on the TV and drinking his tea. They would be round for him in the morning. There’d be lots of them; one or two of the young ones he would really enjoy picking off, but he would not put up too much of a fight. Just enough. Break the odd nose, that sort of thing. Just sufficient for them to have him returned to prison. He was safer there. His cell would be just as he had left it – or else somebody would answer for it. He would stay in there for the rest of his life if it meant that they couldn’t send him down for longer. Oh yes, no fool Richard Hart.
The Circle was much more relaxed after that. Terry and Billy had settled back into their former position of ‘most abhorrent members’, Phil had stopped leaving his phone’s Voice Memo’s switched on and Frankie had stopped stuffing a metal ash tray under his hat. Oh, and as for Vanessa, well, her surname was actually Morrison. She had eczema that itched like hell when she was nervous. She had never met Ms Winthorpe and she had never been in the police force, although, even in her own estimation, she did look just like someone who should have been…