I recognized Northage from his photograph, which allowing for the passage of five or ten years was still a fair likeness. Tall, middle fifties, spare build, rather harsh features. He stood in full view of the dozen or so customers, chatting to the manager, Lipman, who’d been so helpful a couple of days before. Partly out of consideration for the latter I decided not to interrupt, but spent the next few minutes window-shopping. At last Lipman excused himself and made his way to the back of the store. I entered and approached my quarry as unobtrusively as possible.
Perhaps something in my tone alerted him. The relaxed manner he had displayed in talking to Lipman deserted him. And he said what I hadn’t said to the lads who’d stopped me the night before last.
‘Who wants to know?’
‘My name’s Danzig,’ I said quietly. ‘Jim Danzig. I’m a process server. Perhaps I could see you for a moment or two in private.’
He drew himself up to his full height, as they say, and towered over me. I reckoned he was at least six-two, and in fair condition for a man of his age. ‘And perhaps you couldn’t.’
I’d had to serve a good many yobboes and roughnecks in my time, but oddly enough until then I’d never had to cope with the threat of physical violence. They usually grumble or deny all knowledge, but accept that it’s nothing personal, and I’m just being paid to do a job. I dare say I’d been lucky. Today my luck seemed likely to run out.
I reached into my document wallet. ‘Just as you like. I’ve some papers here for you.’
He poked his head forward. Slowly and with exaggerated emphasis he said: ‘You what!’
I held the papers out to him. ‘I’ve been instructed by Mr Stafford to serve you with these proceedings.’
He pushed me in the chest. ‘What bloody proceedings?’
I had to retreat a pace to avoid overbalancing. ‘Civil proceedings in the High Court. Beyond that, you’d better consult your solicitors. My job’s simply to serve you with them.’
Again he pushed me. This time I was ready, and stood firm. ‘Don’t do that, do you mind?’
‘Bloody gumshoe. Asshole.’
Evidently he’d picked up a few American tricks of speech across the Pond. For the third time he pushed me in the chest. If push came to shove, to coin a phrase, he was a lot bigger than me, but I was twenty years younger. ‘Last warning,’ I said quietly.
Some people were looking at us by now, others in true British style averting their eyes and rather desperately attempting to mind their own business.
‘It’s a fine thing when a respectable business man can’t conduct his affairs without being accosted by a bloody’ – push – ‘fucking’ – push – ‘gumshoe!’ Push. Push.
I’m just over five foot eight, and weigh about a hundred and fifty pounds. That’s one metre 73, and 68 kilograms, if you’re into that sort of thing. One of the problems with being my size is that when anyone starts shoving you around you can’t effectively respond in kind. All you can do is stick one on him. From my days in the Force I remembered an old copper telling me how he’d dealt with yobs in the days before human rights, health and safety, and political correctness. ‘When they started shouting the odds,’ he said, ‘first I used to try reasoning with them. If that didn’t do any good, I’d give ’em a smack in the chops.’
I’d always thought this sound advice, though I’d never had to implement it before. I dropped the papers, took a step backward to regain my balance, then let Northage have a brisk jab to the nose. It made his eyes water, but didn’t draw blood.
He gaped in amazement, then said: ‘Right, you bastard, you’ve asked for it.’
He flung himself at me. The time for half-measures had passed. I sidestepped and a let him have a right cross, again to the nose. This time it bled profusely. Blood dripped off his chin down on to his shirt and tie. Howling with rage, he tried to grab me in a bearhug, and partly succeeded. We toppled backward, in the process bringing down a plastic carousel filled with postcards. The amiable manager was wringing his hands and bleating. If the shop employed any security it wasn’t in evidence.
After a brief scuffle on the floor, in which I fared worse, we regained our feet. I half-blocked a swing to the face, and countered with a blow to the solar plexus. Northage grunted and stopped momentarily. But he was tougher than I’d expected, and came forward again, slinging punches. I gave him another thump in the gut, then let him have a left hook to the jaw. Again he stopped in his tracks briefly before walking straight into a right-hander. Semi-conscious, he stumbled almost the entire length of the shop before bringing another pile of books down on to himself. This time he showed no inclination to rise.
I took a few moments to recover my breath, then picked up the papers and pitched them at his feet. Fortunately they struck him on the shins. It’s a myth that you have to touch the defendant with papers to effect valid service, but I always like to do so just in case there’s any argument. ‘I suppose it’s no use asking you to sign the acknowledgment?’ I asked hopefully.
He mopped some blood from his lip with the back of his hand. ‘Fuck off,’ he said.
I took this as a refusal. The manager was on his mobile, frantically calling the police. One of his colleagues, holding the landline phone, seemed too petrified even to move his fingers. A couple of junior members of staff were standing around; a thin lad gaping dimly, a plump blonde girl grinning and miming my punches. Some of the customers had fled in panic, others were gazing helplessly around or just dithering. One couple, in admirably British fashion, were still browsing as if nothing had happened. I judged it time to leave.