This happened to Tony C. He was sitting drinking espresso minding his own business, when he saw a man on stilts. Now, you may think all guys on stilts look ridiculous. But not in Tony C’s eyes. He likes the cut of them. Thinks it an art. To be up that high and walking straight, waving at the little kiddies as they try to figure it all out, now that’s accomplishment.
Tony waves to the man on stilts. The stilts man waves back.
Then the most bizarre thing happens. The stilts man stumbles a bit, gets his head caught in overhead electric wires, starts spinning round, long legs buckling and gyrating like the blades of a drunk helicopter, his top hat falls off, and he falls bang down on his face.
Blood pours out from the eyes of the stilts man.
This isn’t funny according to Tony C. Not one bit.
People form a circle. Amazing how quick people are to form a circle when a body is found or when someone has an epileptic fit, and yet no one lends a hand. Good job Tony is on the scene. He rushes to where the circus performer lays long on the ground.
A child wails; the summer tragedy all too much.
Tony shouts for someone to call an ambulance and a young dreadlocked man obliges, flipping open his mobile and yelling into it.
Tony clutches the stilts man’s hand.
‘It’s okay, you’re gonna make it.’
It takes all his years of know-how for Tony to keep the whole thing together. Gotta stay calm. And he can’t wait too long either, he has to skedaddle before the ambulance arrives, can’t be seen by the authorities. Too risky.
Before he does give them all the slip he promises to avenge the wrongs done to the stilts man. The fallen entertainer, confused, searches deep into Tony’s eyes.
But Tony’s certain. Someone’s gonna pay.
He makes sure to slip his hand inside the jacket and pick out a business card. He knew the guy would have one. Tony has good hunches.
Rick Spears, Stilts Man.
He pats Rick Spears on the cheek. A promising pat. More blood spurts out onto the asphalt.
‘Think of me as your guardian angel.’
Then, ambulance siren, and Tony splits.
Many people conjecture as to the real name of Tony C. People pertaining to be in the know will tell you that it is an Italian name, but too damn tricky to pronounce. ‘C’ is concise, does the job. Tony does have the dark eyes, the dark hair; you could believe he was Italian or Sicilian. Others think it stands for ‘crook’ or ‘cards’ (Tony’s fondness for poker) or ‘carpets’ (the prosperous store he owns) and other C words you don’t care to say out loud. But Tony likes his simple surname, and he doesn’t mind when people speculate, he can’t help who he is or the way he was brought up. In the poorer neighbourhoods stealing was commonplace, didn’t mean to do anybody any harm.
Survival is still what it’s all about.
When he left the scene he was upset and nothing could clear his mind of it. Hours later he still felt like weeping, but that didn’t look good in Ladbroke’s betting office. Although many men must have probably shed buckets of tears in such an emporium, Tony knew not to let emotions show, keep a straight face, always.
‘You okay, Tony? You look a little peaky,’ says Benny, having shut up shop and popped in to catch the last race at Doncaster.
‘Peaky? What’s peaky?’
‘Dunno. Just how you look.’
‘Bad day, Benny. Saw something terrible. Can’t get it out of my head. I think I’m going to be busy for the next few days. Got a little project going.’
It was best for Benny not to ask any more. A ‘project’ meant something underhand, wayward, crooked, something you didn’t want to know about. If Tony C wanted to tell you about it he would. And he didn’t look like talking about it just then, looked a bit too peaky.
Tony rose early the next morning. Decided to pay the Electricity Board a visit. He finished the breakfast his wife Mary cooked; great eggs on toast as usual, had a slurp of coffee, and took his potbelly and short legs off his chair and down the road. It was a fresh day and Tony didn’t mind walking, didn’t want to be seen in the car these days anyway, too risky, still hadn’t gotten around to changing the plates. He stopped in to his local shop and got a paper off Ravi. He’d protected Ravi before, when some bully boys were beefing him up. Tony had stepped in, sorted it out, minimum rough play. Tony’s been getting a free Sun ever since.
Waltzing straight in and up to the shining counter, Tony came face to face with a thin-lipped secretary adjusting her huge glasses on the bridge of her nose.
‘Excuse me, but I’d like to make a few enquiries.’
‘Oh yeah. Enquiries about what?’
She should be chewing gum, he thought, make the picture complete.
‘About electric power lines.’
‘What? What do you wanna know?’
‘I wanna know who’s responsible?’
‘Yeah. I wanna know who puts them up in what parts of the city, who orders them to be put up, how they get put up, how long they’ve been up, in fact I want the entire history of the power lines in the city, since their invention… up to yesterday.’
‘Yesterday something happened in the city. Near my neighbourhood, in fact. And I have to do an investigation.’
‘Are you a policeman?’
‘No. I’m a concerned citizen. And I need some answers. This is a very serious issue.’
The secretary glanced at her colleague, gave her a we’re-dealing-with-a-nut kind of expression. Tony ignored the faces, looked around to see if he could spot anyone that looked vaguely like a manager.
‘Manager’s away today. He’s out on a job. Other side of the city. He can tell you about power lines. Though I doubt you’ll get an entire history. People who work can be kind of busy you know. Maybe you should go to a library.’
Tony considered this. A library. Too risky.
‘Which side of the city is he? I mean, where, exactly?’
The secretary wrote down the address and Tony smiled a thank you. The secretaries gave each other a there-goes-a-nut, and an oh-yeah face, but Tony didn’t catch them. He was on a mission.
Tony rode the bus. He didn’t mind doing this. He could hide behind his paper, never get spotted. He liked Page 3’s Lauren. Not a patch on yesterday’s twenty-one-year-old Hannah, but she was still more than acceptable. He knew that Mary never liked him looking at these girls, so he usually skipped past that page if she was with him. Tony was old-fashioned, knew courtesy. He read about the wars and destruction that was going on in the world and he sighed at the injustice of it all. Sure, he got his hands dirty once in a while, but it was usually for a good cause, helping out a fellow neighbour or something. Well, that was okay. It was the mindless stuff that Tony C didn’t care for. He thought again about the stilts man crashing down and he hung his head in despair. How could people allow this to happen? That stilts man probably had a wife and family. Maybe young babies. Triplets! Tony was definitely doing the right thing, conducting this investigation, righting the wrongs. There was a story too about a council house being flooded; but he had only one pair of hands, only two short legs, and right now he was taken up with avenging the stilts man.
Tony followed the directions on the notepaper. He hung around for a while watching the operation. Trucks, lots of guys moving around, hard hats, tools, large sheets of paper.
Tony smoked; it made him less conspicuous.
He was just a guy out for a stroll, checking out the nags in the paper, having a wee puff. He noticed that most of the workers went to one guy for answers and that guy quickly dispatched them all with authority. He was the one Tony wanted. He casually strolled up when he saw several of them sitting with sandwiches and pouring tea from flasks.
Break time. Perfect.
‘Excuse me. Are you the boss around here?’
‘Yes. You could call me that. I’m overseeing the electrical engineering here. Who are you?’
‘I’m a concerned citizen, sir. I’d like to ask you a few questions about power lines in the city.’
The engineer’s brow became furrowed. Tony had him worried.
‘What do you want to know?’
‘Well, yesterday someone got tangled up in your power lines. Looked a bit dangerous from where I was standing.’
‘Really? Tangled? How?’
‘He was walking along and got his head twisted in a line.’
‘What? Walking? What do you mean? Was he on a trampoline or something? That happened once…’
‘No. He was on stilts.’
‘Oh. Well, was he hurt?’
‘Yes. He’s in the hospital.’
The engineer still had the furrowed-brow look. Tony had him rattled.
‘Did a line come down? Is it down now? Is that the problem?’
‘A man’s been hurt. That’s the problem,’ raising his voice a notch, keep the guy in his place.
‘Look, mister. No disrespect or anything. I don’t know who you are or what you want, but if a guy is walking around on stilts then he should be a bit more careful. Those lines are high enough. We put them up that high because we don’t expect anyone to be walking into them. Even trucks and buses and things aren’t that high. Do you see what I mean? They are pretty safe up there. I make sure of that.’
Tony’s eyes became narrow. He bit the inside of his cheek trying not to let his anger show. The man continued:
‘I’m sorry if your pal got hurt but we’ve lots of work to do. If there’s a line down we’ll take note of the address and get a few guys to drive around and fix it immediately. A line down is pretty dangerous. Now if you don’t mind.’
Tony slowly backed away. He decided it was better to let it go for now. He was on his own, couldn’t take them all; too many of them. If Benny was there he at least had a chance. He winced when he heard a few of them snigger behind his back. Tony would sort things out sooner or later.
Somebody always pays.
His next stop was the hospital. He asked if a man named Rick Spears was admitted yesterday.
Tony took the elevator to the third floor and pulled up a seat.
‘Hello. Do I know you?’ Tony gave him a wink, ‘I’m the guy at the scene. I won’t tell you my full name. Just call me Tony.’
‘What scene? Oh, yes. I remember your face now. Are you okay?’
‘Yeah. Of course I’m okay; you’re the one we should be worrying about.’
‘Oh, well, that’s awfully kind of you to come in and visit, ah, Tony, but I’m doing all right. I had a bit of concussion, that’s all. They are keeping me in one more day for observation, just to be sure. Cut my eye a bit too. It’s a long way off those things. I ought to be more careful really. All these years at it and I still tumble. No wonder the circuses don’t really want me anymore. Hard to get a job as a stilts man these days.’
‘You don’t worry about that, Rick. Tony here will sort you out.’
There was a moment of silence as Tony looked around the ward. He didn’t want to be recognised. He may well have put some of them here. He kept his head low.
‘Are you okay, Tony?’
‘Yeah. Listen. I spoke to a few guys who were responsible for this. Been sorting a few things out. It’s not all done and dusted yet, but you can count on me.’
‘Responsible for what? All I did was fall. There’s no one to blame.’
‘A man like you don’t just fall, Rick. Those power lines, someone’s been tampering. Made it look like a fall.’
‘Look, all that happened was I walking along and waving at the kids and… in fact, I saw you waving at me and I waved back and lost my footing… yeah, now that I think of it I was waving at you. Weren’t you drinking coffee in the Brasilia Café?
‘I may have been, Rick.’
‘Well, there it is then. I waved at you and then I fell. But look, you don’t have to feel bad about it. I should stop all this clowning around. I’m getting too old for it anyway.’
Tony’s eyes grew narrow. For once he began to let his true emotions show.
‘Now you listen here, Rick. You never stop clowning. Do you hear? It’s people like you that make this world a better place. You make the little kiddies laugh. You circus people brighten the lives of hundreds of people. You are an important man, Rick Spears. Now, I’m gonna lay low for a day or two. And when the heat dies down Benny and me, we gonna pay a little visit to a certain Mr McGuire.’
‘Who’s Mr McGuire?’
‘He’s the guy behind the operation. He’s the engineer responsible for putting up power lines all over the city. He’s not getting past Tony C, that’s for sure. You take care now, Rick, you don’t worry about a thing. I’ll come in and see you in a few days.’
Rick Spears watched as the little man shuffled out the door. Tony kept his head down and even lifted his Sun up so no one could catch a good look at his face.
Tony got the bus home. He checked in on Benny and told him that the project was going well. He might need a bit more muscle over the next few days though. Benny nodded like he was used to, having learned over the years not to roll his eyes anymore. Benny told him that the takings were good and that it was the best month of the year so far. Even the Prince Hotel had finally come and settled their bill. But Tony looked distant. His mind was on other things. How could they put a man like Rick Spears in hospital, how could they let council houses get flooded? Benny said no more but went to lock the door and put the shutters down for the evening.