The Life and Crimes of Danny Wilson

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The bookshop was Danny Wilson’s favourite. Everything was old. All of the contents were tired and dog-eared; their second-hand status surpassed long ago. The bindings were peeling and the pages yellowing, with many of the items being better suited for a museum.

The chipped and scuffed wooden shelves - bleached by decades of sunshine that poured in from the store’s large bay windows - struggled to hold the millions of words that rested atop them. At some point in time the shelves had reached their stuffing capacity and as a result, weaving columns of books grew upwards from the carpeted floor. Some were chest height, and Danny could never work out what the procedure was for obtaining a desired book if it was in the lower half of the stack.

The jingle of the bell that hung above the entrance door signalled the start of his day. The quiet, peaceful retreat was a world away from the chaos and darkness of his past life. For up until several years ago, Danny was a hired hand, employed by the more unsavoury characters around town who required his… persuasive qualities. But now those days of violence existed as unsettling memories that stalked Danny from his one-bedroom apartment, through busy streets full of strangers, to the front door of his haven. Once that bell rang he was free, absorbed by a world of words that transported him away from his afflictions.

Most days were spent with Danny sat in one of the two leather chairs provided for customers, reading through an endless supply of books, with only the steady movement of the shadows that the window-panes cast indicating that time was passing.

Today began no different to any other. Danny woke from the screams of his past victims – their cries silenced until it was time for another restless night’s sleep. He ate porridge made with cold water and dressed his weary, hulking frame into one of the many identical charcoal suits that hung within the wardrobe. Lunch was prepared - a sliver of ham between two buttered slices of white bread and a piece of fruit - and he set out on the thirteen minute and twenty-four-second commute. Passing unfamiliar faces on the street that were adorned with familiar, untrustworthy expressions, he marched towards his place of solitude.

The bell chimed as Danny stepped into his sanctuary, leaving the chaos of his past life waiting for him outside. He offered a respectful nod to the owners – an elderly couple who showed little interest in his daily visits. It had crossed his mind as to whether they minded him being here. He used to buy the books and read them at home, but as the time he spent on that leather chair lengthened, and his murky past grew in confidence, he found that the days in the store grew longer and longer. Often he would spend it undisturbed, with the bell above the door only sounding when it was time for him to leave. His only interruption would be the need for sustenance, whether that be food or knowledge in the form of lunch or a new story.

And it was on this day, that was no different from the hundreds of others that came before it, that he discovered a book that would change his life forever. Running a finger along the crowded shelves, he browsed the library for a new means of escapism and came to an abrupt stop at a particular offering.

The first detail that caught his attention was the condition of it. Wedged in alongside the usual tired, time-ravaged tomes, this book looked like it was still in the packet. The spine was perfect, not a crease on it, and the royal blue colouring and gold lettering were vibrant and vivid, as if still drying, fresh off the printing press.  

The second, and more intriguing detail was the title, written in an ostentatious, overly-elaborate font. He lightly mouthed the words as he read it. “The Life and Crimes of Danny Wilson.”

He blinked several times, then withdrew the biography, revealing a final detail that froze Danny in place. Printed on the cover, in black and white, was a close-up photo of someone who bore the same rough and worn features as he did. A balding scalp, crisscrossed with thin, trailing scars crowned a misshapen face that appeared to have been remoulded from years of brawls and punch-ups. A stumpy fat nose sat in the centre of the man’s imposing sneer and deep-set, harsh eyes added to the hostility of the expression. The photo reminded Danny of the life he was keen to forget, but the near-identical facial features and the same name now captivated his curiosity, and he needed to know what the pages within would reveal. Holding the book in both hands, he turned it over and read the synopsis printed on the rear.

Feared by many, underestimated by few, and respected by all, Danny Wilson a.k.a The Persuader, was the man called when dialogue was no longer effective.

From his humble beginnings in post-war Britain, to his rise to notoriety in London’s East End, this is the story of how one man single-handedly created the intimidating image of the debt collector. 

Packed full of first-hand from family, friends and cohorts who ran with him, his story is one of crime and punishment from the depths of the East End, which ultimately ended in despair as Danny tried and failed to move on from a past that continued to haunt him.

The book was shaking in Danny's hands; hands that were clasped tightly around the hardback cover as if it was one of his past victims. He could feel it flex within his grip. The description was too accurate, too specific to his own life.

A worrying thought crossed his mind, and he quickly surveyed the store, expecting to see a shadowy figure lurking in the corner, having dispatched the elderly owners by some grizzly means so they could be alone. But the place was empty. He glanced over his shoulder and out onto the street, believing that there would be a dark vehicle with blacked-out windows parked up. But the view was full of motorists and passers-by unconcerned with the events unfolding within the quaint bookshop.

Turning around and seeing his chair in the corner of the store, he felt himself drawn to that leather-clad haunt. Negotiating the stacks of books and crowded shelves, he slumped down and prised open the biography, opting to begin at the start, so ensuring that no detail was missed, and this hoax, or trick, or whatever it was, would be revealed.

It began, as all biographies do, with his childhood. It was such a long time ago now. The country was still reeling from the war, ration books and rubble still featured heavily in day to day life. But this was nothing new, any historical account of that time would tell the same story. It was the details, however, that coloured this tale and drew Danny further into the spiral of confusion and mystery. They were indistinguishable from his life’s history.

There were specifics such as his pet rat Toby that lived in a shoebox under his bed. His mother hated that vermin and emitted a shriek so loud when she first discovered it that it caused the neighbours to rush in expecting the worst.

Or how he and his best friend Peter used to play in the alleyway between their homes. Childhood laughter was frequently heard throughout that brick-lined passage until one day, Peter wasn’t allowed out any more. Several years passed before Danny learnt what Polio was.

The parallel life story continued into his teenage years and his first kiss. Wendy Stafford was her name - auburn hair, hazel eyes and dense freckles that painted her soft face. It was in the park, between the dilapidated slide and a swing set that just consisted of hanging, limp chains, devoid of the seats that had rotted away years ago, that they kissed. Caught up in his pubescent emotions he thought it would be the start of something special, until he discovered that Wendy had done it as a dare. The news had crushed him, left him a weeping mess for days. He’d even contemplated suicide, such were the depths to which he'd fallen. 

Now sat in the leather chair, Danny looked up from the book. He’d never told anyone about that. The other details could have been gleaned from family members or neighbours. But the thoughts of suicide had never been spoken aloud. For the first time in decades his palms began to sweat.

He continued to read, now up to his twenties and the turning point in his life. The fateful choice he made to make a few extra shillings. He was just tagging along really. An extra pair of hands if things went south - which of course they did. He’d been in a few scraps growing up - who hadn’t? - but his large size had kept him out of the worst of trouble. But that night, outnumbered and with his back against the wall, he became aware of what he was truly capable of. The fight may have come to an end, but that didn’t mean he was done with his assailants. The ones that got away were left disfigured, and subsequently spread warnings of The Persuader.

Danny took a moment to reflect on those screams and pleas for mercy. They’d not been offered much attention in these later years of his life; his mind now crowded with other unfortunate souls that shouted louder and fought harder for his attention. These same souls were now on the page before him, invading his peaceful solace. With each turn a new victim was unveiled, complete with many of the gory details.

Danny didn’t feel the bead of sweat roll off his temple, or the subtle vibrating of his right leg. He was too focused on how these final moments, which were shared between him, the victim and a particularly effective tool, were displayed here in black and white. He never spoke of his methods. Anyone who was familiar with them was either not in a position to meaningfully communicate anymore, or was decomposing at the landfill.

As he read his way towards the end of the biography, the final pages took on more of an obituary tone, similar to something that would be spoken aloud at a lonely funeral. With wide, panicked eyes, The Persuader spoke the final paragraph aloud:

For all the punishment and cruelty that Danny Wilson inflicted on others, ultimately, he was the most tortured victim. He spent his final years at a local bookshop, a place he visited every day, sat alone, attempting to escape his past. That was, until his past eventually found him. The End.

Danny stared intently at those final two words, trying to make sense of them, when he was interrupted by the chiming of the bell that hung above the entrance.