Al Capone's Chair

He was sitting in Al Capone's chair in his room at the small hotel he lodged in when travelling through that town. It was part of the legend the owner, an agedly small, fussing American lady called Dorcas, told of her past.

She had been, she said, the docent of a hotel in Cicero, and the chair, hailing from there too, was part of a second hand furniture business which formed Capone's legal façade. The hotel, no doubt, if it existed, had been a speakeasy, its bar pouring bootleg cocktails and Dorcas welcoming people in.

The chair, deep and wide with rolled arms and a carved wooden frontage, in a faded red plush, was far away now from the windy city of Chicago, at the seaside in England.

When he came to stay here, he was chaperoning others and Dorcas was the perfect host, having lost none of her old skills, her garrulity really saying nothing, flourishing embellished tales of a long past time elsewhere, while asking no questions of her guests. She had come here in the early sixties, perhaps to help her son (now elderly too and partner manager) to escape the draft.

He checked his watch. It was almost time to go and collect this year's charges. He didn't smoke, but it seemed to him, and not for the first time when he had stayed here, that as he rose a waft of fresh cigar fragrance came to him, as of a fellow conspirator companionably waiting alongside. In a second it had gone and he thought it must be some kind of autosuggestion he had fancied up, a created part of this annual routine.

He went out into a coldish summer evening, where once past the shelter of the seafront streets and on the promenade walk, a blustering wind swept in across the bleak looking mudflats of the estuary, stretching for miles out beyond the pier that the sea never reached, blank of life and not even picked over by birds, just ridges of mud with a dull pewter gleam where the sun caught on moisture. And yet, out there, was where the booty lay.

He stood watching for about twenty minutes, checking his watch again when the coastguard jeep made its regular evening patrol along the nearside of the estuary. He had all their timings marked out and, as much as you could ever be sure of them, the tidal changes which made lethal quick sands in different places.

He was known as a safe pair of hands and if there were occasional drownings of cockle pickers, the illegals were untraceable and liability could never be brought to the door of those who paid him to collect their lucrative treasure.

He scanned the seafront. The fun fair was far to the right and even should evening strollers brave the chill for a bit of a view of the Queen's Gardens along the prom, they would be some miles out at their work, invisible against the dun backdrop reaching out behind.

A punctilious man, he checked his watch again and walked to the meeting and drop off point, where the lorry would be waiting for him to collect the pickers. It was there, as arranged, for organisation was everything in such a business.

They filed out silently, as instructed, some twenty or so men, with their small belongings and followed him through the backstreets to the hotel, which in anticipation of their arrival, already blinked, no vacancies, in its front window.

Dorcas was waiting, her plump hands eloquent in gesturing them through, volubly assuring them that their meal would be ready in half an hour, once he had settled his guests in. Even they smiled, picking up on her warmth and practised sincerity, though mostly, they had no English at all.

While they stayed there (it would be several well rewarded days for Dorcas), they would be in clean and quite gracious surroundings, for whoever her visitors were, Dorcas prided herself on her standards and there were matching cruet sets in dark blue glass and silver, on every table.

He told them what time to be ready by after eating and they gathered dutifully, to be put into two other vans parked round the back and driven quietly out on to the sands, with their nets, hooks and bags for dredging and collecting.

It was part of his job, for he was conscientious about it, to walk them on to the safe area and wait for a while to make sure the cockle beds were plump and gainful and the work was secure, before being picked up again himself and left at the hotel to await their return, collected separately once the shift was over.

Nothing seemed different to him this time. The vans drove away and he set his pickers to work. Being Chinese and from the rural rice paddy areas, they were used to working standing in watery ground, and, instructed by the experienced ones, soon picked up the skill and busily gathered in the harvest.

He watched a pallid, unsummery sun move along the horizon through filters of night cloud coming in, a peaceful dusk descending. When it reached a certain point, he knew it was time to make his call.

He went to take his mobile out to phone for transport back and with a shock, realised it was lifeless, yet he had charged it fully earlier on. He tried resetting it, taking off the back to remove and replace the battery, but there was none in it. Someone had taken it out. He was the only one with a phone, the others not allowed to bring anything with them on to the sands which might identify them later in case of accidents.

He looked behind at the distant shoreline, just a hint of dark shapes showing where hotels stood. Even if they started now, it would already be too late, being so far out, to make it back before the tide swept in swiftly around them and the ground sucked them in.

He could see, some way off from them, but parallel, lights signalling, it must be, to a different group of pickers, though there should have been no others and he suddenly remembered something. Dorcas's son had passed him on the stairs as he went back up to his room after the meal and given him a fleeting look he had caught but not interpreted.

The gloomy evening deepened suddenly around them and a voice, with a Brooklyn accent and a sly chuckle, seemed to say confidingly in his ear:
" Too bad, son. Never heard of the double cross?"

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