For the third time that evening, Joseph Connell staggered into the upstairs room of the Bricklayer’s Arms clutching a crate of Birra Moretti. He struggled, one-handed, to open the waist-high door that provided access to behind the bar. As usual, Harry the barman did not offer to help. The bribe that had guaranteed his silence regarding Joseph’s extracurricular activities did not extend to any other form of cooperation. Instead, Harry had smirked and nicknamed him Bugman.
The act of sliding the bottles onto the shelves of the refrigerator made Joseph shudder. In his mind’s eye he saw row after row of corpses laid out on slabs. Seventeen bodies: male and female, young and old, all of them there because of him.
A kick to the heels jolted Joseph out of his trance. Harry grumbled about his daydreaming before ordering him to collect the empties. Joseph knew it would be pointless to complain. After all, he had taken this job precisely because of the opportunities it provided. Tonight though, success looked highly unlikely.
He moved from table to table, building a tower of sticky glasses. Noisy twenty-somethings had packed the upstairs room, revelling in the flux of the here-and-now. Enjoy life while you can, Joseph said under his breath.
Something he would not be doing until he had paid his penance.
Joseph leaned over the bar and placed the empties in the sink. As Harry had no new tasks for him, he returned to his usual vantage point by the doorway.
A trio of young women pushed past him, all short skirts and glossy make-up, trailing catcalls and wolf-whistles in their wake. Their vacated table immediately acquired new occupants. A tall, dark-haired man pushed up the sash window, to let in some cool air into the fug, while his stockier, balding companion swept discarded wrapping paper onto the floor.
Joseph turned away from the table, struggling to hide his look of relief. The prospect of leaving his current project unfinished had dismayed him. He would not have accepted such a situation while working as a contract programmer; nor could he now, even though it required him to beg menial, cash-in-hand jobs from pub managers.
A fortnight after tracing the men to the Bricklayers Arms, Joseph had obtained a part-time job there. Another week passed before he recorded one of their conversations, with disappointing results. His frustration worsened when two further recordings confirmed that, in these men, alcohol induced a mood of introspection rather than the flood of reminiscence he sought. Worse still, he had not seen the pair at all during the next month. Only this morning, he had wondered whether he ought to move on. He looked on with only mild interest as a skinny, dark-haired woman waved to the men from across the room. She weaved her way through the throng, pausing once to apologise for causing a spill. On reaching the table, she stooped to kiss the balding man on the cheeks. It was a demure little ceremony, which made Joseph think that they had been friends for many years. Something about the appraising look she gave her friend’s companion piqued his interest. Might she be the key to unlocking the men’s memories?