A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A HAND CRUSHER
Mo meets me at my curry house.
"So," I say, "How's your Friday so far?"
He waits while my niece lays down the jug and glasses. No matter how many times I've told him not to bother, he always insists on ice cold water.
"Long but not finished." His finger dwarfs his nose as he scratches it. "And you?"
I shrug. Well, my shoulders jiggle: there's not much else to my arms to create a proper shrug.
"The books are balanced. I've been bored all day."
"How are your boys?"
"Behaving. At the moment."
"Well, if they don't, its £650 this time." For a guy with monster arms, Mo pours out water like the daintiest tea maid. "The pinky ring of that last punk cut deep. I don't like to see blood."
"Aww," I say, "Haemophobia ruining your work life?"
Mo shrugs. "Blood's fine except when it's my blood."
The punk kid was an upstart in the gang. I didn't care for his cockiness and soon had him pegged as an informant. Too many of the deliveries he oversaw were delayed or intercepted so I called in outside help.
I had heard of the Hand Crusher by reputation: a short man named Mo with the thickest mitts you ever saw. I pointed Mo in the right direction and he soon got to work. Afterwards the kid couldn't make a fist with either hand.
But apparently the damage wasn't only one way: I can now see the tiniest scar on the heel of Mo's palm as he sips his chilled water.
"Any fun jobs today?"
"I did a shake break."
I laugh. Shake breaks are Mo's calling card. If you're fool enough to accept his hand on meeting, you'll soon know you've made a mistake.
"Immediate or slow release?"
"The Salieri wanted slow."
"Now why do you always call them Salieri? I don't have you down as a classical music buff."
Mo sniffs. "I like Amadeus."
"The film. I know Salieri probably didn't actually hate the kid but it's a cracker of a story."
"And that makes for a good nickname?"
He nods. My niece lays down the samosas. Mo thanks her and leans forward as she disappears.
"The Salieri in this job wanted to introduce me to his rival. They were both business types: slicked-back hair and pearly whites. I pretended to be coming out of a meeting with the Salieri as we bumped into the target." Mo's theatrical wink is marred by the squint of his other eye.
"I took this target by the hand, this well-manicured thing. It smelled faintly of aloe. I squeezed either side of his palm. A nice even pressure."
It's always an even pressure. Mo never explains how he knows.
"When will the guy feel the damage?" I ask him.
"When he flattens his hand."
Mo holds up a vegetable samosa but I shake my head. "So that explains the suit. You do know your tie's crooked?"
He doesn't look put out by this at all. "I look better than the Salieri did."
"And the target?"
"He wasn't wearing a tie."
I laugh. Considering the state his hand will be in now, I suppose that that's a good thing.
"That was the morning job," Mo says, touching the corners of his mouth with a serviette.
"What did you do the rest of the day?"
"I had breakfast and went out to my lady."
I grin. "Your lady?"
"She has a studio on Dyson Street."
Suddenly a wistful look comes over Mo's face. I've never seen the like: it makes his blotchy face sag.
"How did you meet her?"
"At some Seventies night." He snorts again. "She was made up like Ziggy Stardust."
"Is that a...thing for you?"
"I like the song." His eyebrow raises. "So we bitched about his fans and should we crush his sweet hands?"
"Your quite the music man, Mo. I had no idea." I signal my niece to bring some more water. "So you went up to your lady's studio and what?"
"Nothing much. She wanted to do something but we just kissed. When her hands went to the back of my head, I took them down and held them there." Mo sighs. "And squeezed."
He nods. "Around the ring finger."
I work it out. "Salieri is an old lover of hers. Jilted?"
"He was one of my lady's old models. They made a series of sculptures together."
"Did she still have them in the studio?"
"No. They're in some exhibition somewhere now. Doing quite well."
I try again. "They were going to get married but your lady broke it off. She had other lovers."
"Obviously." Mo stares down at his shoes.
"The Salieri wanted it to be poetic. You broke the finger the engagement ring was on."
Mo still won't look me in the eye.
"She won't be able to work again, will she?"
He shakes his head. "I certainly won't see her."
The samosa plate is collected, the slight clatter filling the awkward silence.
"Any other jobs before you came here?"
"Simple intimidation." Mo finally looks up again. "Another suit only he had an important job. An interpreter.
"He was in a meeting between the Salieri and some important deaf boss. Apparently this interpreter botched the deal, slipped an extra sign in that weakened negotiation. The Salieri said he knew it was on pursue but..."
I lean forward. "But?"
"He was a kid. Terrified when I dragged him round the corner. He said it was a mistake, his first time under that kind of pressure." Mo makes a small breath that might even be a laugh. "Said he didn't know what his hands were doing."
The sudden slow down in everything he says is infuriating. "And?"
Mo holds my gaze. "I did it."
"What though? Shake break? Something more?"
"A pinch. The kid'll be back to work in a few months but I got the job done."
Sign language. Hand gestures. Big or small, it all seems so excessive to me. It's amazing how able-bodied folk forget you can communicate so effectively without all that. I, for one, do very well with just my words and deeds.
At last my niece brings out the main course: two Chicken Jalfrezis.
Mo reaches out for the lids of both silver dishes.
"That cut," I mutter, "I still looks pretty bad."
"Did you have it checked out?"
"I would be more comfortable if you got a tetanus jab."
Mo scrapes his chair closer to me. He is tired, clearly wants to go home but there is still one last job to do.
He mixes the rice and the curry on my plate, fills a fork and brings it to my lips. Those infamous hand-crushing hands don't waver.
I smile. "Does this make me a Salieri too?"
Mo makes gloomy eye contact with me. "I'm not sure yet."
Nevertheless I take my first bite.