him that there had been a power shift and now he was on the outer. Ihaka assumed the aim was to isolate him, and that Firkitt, as always, was doing his masterâs bidding.
âThatâs got nothing to do with it,â said Ihaka. âI just forgot.â
âWhat a load of shit,â said Van Roon crisply. âSo are you coming?â
Ihaka turned around. The floor space previously occupied by the woman had been taken over by a couple of young Asian guys who smiled shyly at him.
âYeah,â he said. âFriday night in Ponsonby, though. It might take a while to get a cab.â
âIf you have any trouble, give us a ring and Iâll come and get you,â said Van Roon. âIâm on OJ tonight.â
Ihaka looked around. The woman was over in the far corner, talking animatedly to a handsome Polynesian who had the pale glow of minor celebrity.
He drained his beer and headed for the exit.
When Ihaka walked into the inner-city pub bar where the farewell function was beginning to wind down, Firkitt sucked even more fiercely on the unlit cigarette heâd been toying with for several minutes. âWell, fuck me,â he said. âLook what the cat dragged in.â
Behind him, Charlton was taking his turn to butter up Worsp. He paused in mid-sentence, glancing over his shoulder to see what Firkitt was talking about. âMust be a mighty big cat,â he said.
Worsp, who had a backside that wobbled in the wind, broke into a silent, heaving chuckle. âBloody typical,â he said. âStill, better late than never, I suppose.â
âThatâs one way of looking at it,â said Charlton. âAnother would be: better never than late.â
He was so pleased with his witticism that he shook Worspâs hand for the fourth time that day. âI really have to hit the road, Ted, but donât be a stranger. Itâd be a crime to let all that wisdom and experience go to waste.â
Even though heâd been lapping up free drinks and flattery all night, Worsp hadnât had his fill of either. âJust quietly,â he purred, âI suspect life after Ted will come as a rude shock to some of these chaps. But you know me, sir, the old warhorse. When the bugle sounds, I start pawing the ground.â
âYouâve been a good soldier, mate,â said Charlton, his voice husky with camaraderie. âAll the very best.â
Firkitt dropped a rough hand on Worspâs shoulder. âGood on you, champ. Take it easy now.â
They watched Worsp lumber off in search of someone who hadnât shouted him a drink. âDonât be a stranger?â said Firkitt incredulously. âA good soldier? Give me a fucking break.â
Charlton shrugged. âSometimes it doesnât hurt to sprinkle a little sugar. Needless to say, I rely on you to make life hell for anyone who encourages that old fraud to come within five kilometres of Central.â
âRight, Iâm off. Are you sticking around?â
âNot for long,â said Firkitt. âLooks like sheâs running out of steam.â
âWell,â said Charlton, âshould you happen to find yourself tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte with our brown broâ¦â
âWhat the fuck does that mean?â
âIf you talk to him.â
âOh, Iâll be talking to him all right,â said Firkitt. âAnd Iâll tell you what, I wonât be sprinkling any fucking sugar.â
âGlad to hear it,â said Charlton. âThe manâs overweight. A little sugar is the last thing he needs.â
Ihaka was beginning to relax. Maybe this wouldnât be a complete horror show after all. Heâd done the decent thing by Worsp, biting his tongue when the old prong greeted him with, âLet me guess â your mother had another fall?â Heâd bought Worsp a Scotch and dry and let him crap on about how the troops at