John Brodie, the former winger turned detective, returns to hunt down some stolen medals
Hughie Johnstone was a small man, legs a touch bowed, coughing into his hankie – a wet cough that caused my girl Rosalind to frown. She was a nurse at the Royal Infirmary and Greenock, the town in which we were both born, specialised in rain. The damp air could have been cut up and sold to the desert sheikhs but here it just produced pulmonary ailments and a quick trip to the cemetery.
The hankie was carefully folded and stowed away neatly. Hughie was a fastidious soul; to look at him you’d never guess that he had ruled a Morton midfield like the Kaiser for a long skilful era. The big clubs had come and dangled the jerseys – one Royal blue, one green and white hoops – but the wee man would not be budged and the management knew better than to force the issue until he nodded his assent. Elsewise they would have been lynched from the nearest lamp post like Mussolini.
Rangers it was eventually. He might have been heading towards the twilight of his career but even in the half-dark he took them to a couple of league championships and three cups. The wee man was a hero. Even the Celtic fans showed respect. There are few heroes now. To be such a person you have to care for something more than your life. I am not one of these men.
My name is John Brodie. Vulcan had a limp and so do I. His was caused by an angry Jupiter, mine by a right-back who broke my leg in pieces and, with that tackle, ended a part of my life. After that I went to hell. Down to the very depths. With Rosalind’s help I was finding my way back out again but it was touch and go. Always touch and go.
“I was at the same school as your father,” Hughie remarked, breaking into what had become, without me knowing it, a long silence.
“He never said.”
“Andy was two years up on me. Played a wee bit on the wing, jist the one trick though. He was mair intae the politicks.”
My father had been a Clydeside Communist. He died of cancer and his last words were, “The only good thing about this bugger. It gets the Tories as well.”
“They tell me you investigate things,” said Hughie.
“He sticks his nose in and gets battered for his pains,“ Rosalind remarked pertly, then stood up and shrugged on her coat. “I’m away to my work.”
Hughie and I watched her head for the door. The raincoat was tightly belted to her waist and flared above the knee of her seamed black stockings. It was not an unpleasant sight.
“Help yourself to another cup of tea, Mister Johnstone,” she called back. “John will never remember. His head is full of gaps.”
Door closed. The lady gone. I poured Hughie out a fresh brew to prove how wrong Rosalind could be on occasions, making sure the strainer was well positioned – unlike the present Morton defence – before answering the wee man.
“I uncovered a bribery case. A bookie. Rigged bets. To do with a football match.”
“I heard about that.”
“Word got round. Folk come to me. Small cases mostly.”
Hughie took out a spectacle case, carefully removed the glasses and put them on. His eyes through the magnified lens were, behind the folds of skin, veined but bright blue. “Such as?” he asked.
“My last enquiry was the dual disappearance of Ming the Merciless and Joey the budgie.” I took a deep breath. “Ming was the beloved tomcat and Joey the equally adored budgie of two neighbours of mine in the next tenement. I ascertained that Joey was in the habit of being let out his cage to sun himself on the back window ledge.”
“That wouldnae take long in Greenock,” observed Hughie.
“The bird never flew away though perhaps he did this time because he was gone. But then, through diligent questioning, I discovered that the other neighbour had left her window propped open on an empty box of black magic to let some air into the kitchen. Ming must have squeezed through and made a lunge. I found them both below, behind the midden bins. Dead on arrival. Mortal embrace.”
“Like a winger and a full back, eh?”
I had told this idiotic story so that Hughie would be under no illusions as regards my investigative ability but I could see from the flinty look in his eyes that he hadn’t bought the body swerve. After all he was without doubt one of the hardest men to slide a ball past in Scottish football. His sense of anticipation was uncanny and he rarely fouled. You only commit such an act when you’re not there - out of position. My whole life, I have occupied that space.
“Rosalind said ye got a battering?”
“The bookie’s hard men.”
“Did the boot go in?”
“Had its moments.”
Silence. From somewhere beneath, there was a noise from the Willow Bar, which lay directly below my floral lino; a loud laugh followed by the crack of dominoes hitting a tabletop indicated that someone had just laid the double six. I had moved down here from the attic room at the top to get nearer the action. Hughie fished in his cup with a spoon, came up with one stray tea leaf I had missed and gazed at me steadfastly. He was going nowhere.
“All right,” I sighed. “What can I do for you Mister Johnstone?”
“Someone has stolen property of mine,” Hughie said quietly. “I want to get it back. And if I don’t get it back, I intend to exact retribution.”
This time the silence was profound. Nothing from the bar below. The whole of Greenock – mute.
When Hughie had come back from Rangers to spend the final two years of his career with Morton, he was slow, could still see a pass, but the legs were gone. In a game against St Mirren, bitter rivals, a hooligan bunch of Paisley cloggers, one tough nut kicked the wee man up in the air – wanted to make a name for himself, seen too many cowboy films about the fastest gun.
Hughie picked himself out of the mud – the rain was belting down – and the crowd fell quiet at the witnessed humiliation - in time past he would have left the tough nut kicking air. Towards the end of the game, Morton were awarded a free-kick. About thirty-five yards out. Hughie indicated he would take it. The rest of the team shrugged their shoulders – he was not heavy booted, it was a long way out, but he was captain. The leather sphere, as they say, was like a cannonball, sodden with the downpour. I was about ten at the time. My father had cupped his coat round my head to save me from the worst, and I could barely make out the figures through the stair rods slanting down.
The tough nut was right in the middle of the defensive wall. Hughie hit the ball and the ball hit the man. It broke his nose, dislocated his jaw, gave him two keekers and put him into hospital for three weeks. The game was a draw.
So when Hughie said he was going to exact retribution, he was not kidding.
I took out a Woolworth’s pad of paper that had a pencil attached to the side and looked down at the blank page. “And what is the name of this dirty rotten thief, Mr Johnstone?”
“Barry. Barry Wilson.”
I wrote it down in block capitals. This was bad. This was very bad.
The story Hughie told me was as follows. All of his mementoes he kept at home in a neat wee pre-fab up in Gibshill. That particular scheme was bandit country, delivering the post at Christmas was like Wells Fargo surrounded by Geronimo’s Apaches. I had done it one year to earn some spondulicks in the company of Sid, a cheery Englishman who drove a red postie van, and every day we were bombarded by a hail of stones, razor sharp tin cans and home-made arrows from the unseen tribal warriors.
Nevertheless Hughie’s pre-fabricated dwelling was untouched, his reputation saw to that – had the man not played for the Scottish League XI against their English equivalent alongside the great Matt Busby? They got beat 3-1, but Hughie had put one sliding block on Stanley Matthews that was still debated in the pubs with salt and pepper pots taking the part of both men.
But the wee man did not take such respect for granted. He snibbed the windows and locked the door when leaving, dribbled a tennis ball with some of the hellish midget ruffians that were gathering missiles for the next postal delivery and left all in good order.
So – there came a day, yesterday in fact, when he returned, opened the door, and immediately saw a pale rectangular patch of wallpaper where a glass case had hung on the wall.
“It was my medal case,” he said quietly.
“Fifteen. From when I was in the juniors, top o’ second division with Morton, Scottish Cup final with the Huns and the Hampden Game.”
I noticed his hands were now clenched. White-knuckled. Delicate stuff. “Tell me the circumstances, please?”
To this rather po-faced enquiry that disguised a rising panic within, Hughie replied in formal tones, nodding his head slightly as if ticking off the facts. “It is well known up the Gibby that I leave the house every Wednesday afternoon.”
“My brother’s widow, Mary. Tea and ginger biscuits.”
Now it was my turn to nod. Widows are a responsibility. “So your movements would be known?”
“Right enough. This time o’ the year, it’s well dark afore I get back.”
“Any sign of a break-in?” A shake of the head. “So, they had keys?”
The eyes darkened over as if a thought was troubling him. Then he replied. “They had something.”
Now we had come to the bit that I had been dreading – the cause of my inner panic – this was not a back green job. How come Hughie had laid this theft at Barry Wilson’s door?
This is how come.
One of the baleful midgets had been sent to get the family tea from the local fish and chip shop. No fish just chips. Toma’s it was called and run by Big Fat Toma – in fact a relatively small man but fat right enough, who sported a big scar down the side of his face because he had once run with The Cheeky Forty, a gang of hoodlums that had fought running battles with the police and Canadian sailors during the war. The rancid smell from his chip fat could stop a Sherman Firefly in its tracks but the price was cheap and Toma sometimes threw in a pickled onion if the mood took him.
It was raining of course and the boy hurried to get the twice-saturated chips back home but en route noticed a big black limousine parked in the gloom on a side street.
Big black limousines did not belong in the Gibby.
As he watched, a figure ran from Hughie’s house to the car. A door slammed and it took off. The boy mentioned it to his father who dragged him to the wee man the next morning when word got round that sacrilege had been committed.
The running figure was not identified but the boy’s eyes, though smarting with the vinegar coming off said chips, functioned enough for him to make out a licence plate in the lamplight.
Personalised. Easy to remember. BW – 303030. The initials were obvious and the number had its own significance.
“Why would Barry Wilson want your medals, Hughie?”
“He offered to buy them. I don’t like the man.”
“Where was this?”
“Cappielow. He invited me as a guest. The directors’ box. I should have stuck tae the terracing. Where I belong.” I had been writing some of this down on the Woolworth’s pad. The biro started smudging all over my fingers. I hoped it was not an omen. “It was after the game. We won 4-3 but the defence was rubbish. I told him so.” Hughie twisted in his chair abruptly as if he had heard something. “Have ye noticed how small his eyes are – Wilson?”
“I don’t know the man up close.”
“Like a snake. Or a weasel. Some kind o’ rodent. It was then he made his offer – all smiles. When I said I was keeping what I had earned, it was not for sale and never would be – it was like – a different person. The smile was gone.”
The wee man sat there like a piece of granite and I shook my head – something was buzzing around inside it like a midgie on the prowl. “ Why would he desire your medals?”
“He said he wanted them tae hing on the wall at Cappielow, in the board room. But I knew better. He wanted them for himself.”
“He has none of his own.”
There might be some profound psychological truth behind that remark, but Hughie’s face was simplicity itself. I wiped a smudge of biro onto the pad from my thumb. “Why don’t you just – go and face him out about this?”
“I have no proof – a wee boy in the rain. He’d jist laugh.”
“Barry Wilson may well just laugh at me.”
Hughie’s head snapped up and those bright blue eyes burned in. He reached into his pocket, took out a small purse, extracted a clean five pound note and laid it down. “You’re an investigator,” he said. “Away and investigate.”
With that, he put his specs back in the case, coughed into his hankie, a precise discharge, and left. I sat there and regarded the Woolworth’s pad. Scrawled sentences to do with chips in the rain but the block capitals could not be avoided. Like the full-back who cut me down.
“BARRY WILSON,” they said, and no matter how much I squinted, the letters would not change. Hughie’s declaration echoed through my mind in similar fashion. “I intend to exact retribution.”
Alec Mangan was always ahead of the game. First at school to smoke, first to get found cheating at three-card brag, first to get his girlfriend pregnant – in other words a born journalist. His face was puffy, eyes sliding sideways like a goalie in the mud, and he nursed the whisky I had bought him like a newborn infant.
He worked as a reporter for the local Greenock Telegraph but had connections into the Glasgow papers – put it this way, Alec sniffed at corruption like a pig does truffles. Not to uncover it, necessarily, he could always be bought off, but the smell attracted him.
Jimmy Lapsley, the barman at the Willow, frowned over – he was a decent soul and a great friend of my father who had been domino champion and his partner in the doubles – Jimmy had also witnessed me near drink myself to death in the bad old days and forever worried that I might return to evil habits.
But I had a chaste half pint before me, not a dram in sight. On the case, eh?
Alec sucked in a lungful of his Lucky Strike – he was deeply influenced by the likes of Frank Sinatra – and blew out a perfect smoke ring. A bit wasted in the Willow Bar; the place was quiet in the early evening and had that strange familiar and forlorn emptiness – beer and cigarette fumes mingled with the faint trace of morning Brasso and the furniture polish that Jimmy used so diligently to keep the place shining. He was an officer in the Boy’s Brigade.
“Barry Wilson, eh?” Alec pronounced through another lungful, ”Quite a boy. Quite a boy.”
I knew no more the man than the rest of Greenock which was that about three years ago, Morton were in a moribund state and Wilson had turned up out of the blue, taken over the finance, had become chairman, sacked the manager – who admittedly was next to useless – assumed the dual role, got an experienced trainer in and then found the money to buy some half-decent players – especially in attack. Barry liked to attack.
Three-nil was his preferred score-line. BW 303030.
He had also pulled off some stunts that offended the purists such as having Miss Glasgow kick off the first ball of the new season in her bathie costume – thank God there was a blink of sun that day otherwise the poor girl would have frozen to death – and hired a barrage balloon that floated over Cappielow for selected home games with the slogan BARRY’S BOYS RULE – OK?
Like or lump him, he got folk through the turnstiles and Morton teetered uneasily in the top half of the Second Division – a lot better than the lower depths where they were usually marooned – but – and there’s aye a but – the team had so far won nothing and rumours of financial skulduggery followed Barry around like a bad aftershave. These he brushed off like so much fluff from his black mohair suit. A pure white shirt set off his all-year tan. Quite a boy.
Alec’s shrewd, treacherous eyes measured me up. “How come you’re interested in Mr Wilson?”
His glass was empty and I signalled Jimmy to set up another. A gloomy shake of the head and the barman did as requested. He was, in fact, as near as damn it, teetotal. I limped to the bar, paid, looked at the pale hunched figure in the mirror that was myself, came back and planked the glass before my informant. A meditative sip, then Alec dished the dirt.
“Nobody can lay a glove on our Barry. They say it’s all borrowed money, the ground put up as a guarantee, seat o’ the pants stuff, but nobody knows.”
“Where does he come from?”
“The planet Zog. A man of mystery. They say he’s got connections to some of the big boys in Glasgow. Gangsters. Life takers. They say.”
Alec raised one nicotine-stained finger and tapped the side of his nose – he then reached out and poked me in the sternum with the same digit. “One thing. He has two heavy-duty merchants who never leave his side. Maybe when he goes to the lavvy, but that’s about it. It’s no’ so much the size – it’s the look in their eye. If you’re thinking of going up against Barry – I would strongly advise the opposite.”
“I’ve been kicked by hard men before.”
“Wouldnae be a kick, John. It would be a knife through butter.”
For a moment there was a weird glint of compassion in Alec’s eyes, then he threw back his dram, stubbed out his Lucky Strike and grinned like a shark. “But let me know. I’ll rustle up a headline. Washed-up ex-footballer found hanging on butcher’s hook.”
Only Alec’s little joke but for some reason the barb went deep. A strange thing about pain – it resides in so many places. Sometimes in a twisted broken bone that will never quite heal or in the pathways of the heart that seem so full of bloody potholes.
But for me it is pictures in the mind. I was a young winger, a Junior game, full of promise – the man against me going in the opposite direction, ashes in his boots and mouth.
Now that I look back on it, I realise I must have danced past him once too often – when you’re young, other people don’t register. This time he did.
A savage tackle. A sickening crack. I never played again. My left leg is twisted. Rosalind insists that in certain positions it can be quite arousing but the woman’s just being kind.
I hit the booze bad for a long time and the dependence still waits for me crouching like a beast in the corner, but I manage to walk a very thin line. I can still hear that crack though.
“John?” Jimmy’s voice broke into my reverie – Alec Mangan had gone, promising to phone a few pals in Glasgow in case some scandal might have surfaced recently. His reporter’s nose was twitching and he knew I was up to something. I kept Hughie well out of it but implied that there was a certain bit of “exploration” to be encompassed. Fancy words. Alec sniffed and lit up another fag. I promised that if anything newsworthy transpired he would be the first to know and he seemed, for the moment, satisfied with that. “I have two meat pies left over frae this morning,” the barman continued solemnly. “Do you and Rosalind want them for your tea?”
“I intend to make spaghetti, Jimmy. There might be a certain clash of cultures.”
He nodded acceptance of such culinary mores. “Ye want a game of dominoes then?” Jimmy was forever trying to lure me into the contest in the hope of resurrecting the championship-winning team that he’d had with my father.
“I have some thinking to do, I’m afraid.”
Thinking was good. Jimmy was happy with that. As he held a glass up to the light to give it a final swipe, I saw behind him on the wall where all the Morton souvenirs were arranged, a photo of the second-division winning side with Hughie sat right in the middle of the front row. In his hands was a large cup and round his neck was a ribbon with the medal dangling.
I looked down at my hardly touched half-pint – what was it I had just said about thinking?
Rosalind Connor hoovered up the last strand of pasta clean as a whistle. The sauce was, to be honest, mince with another hat on, but her father was an Irish doctor and they had never got on – he was a potato fanatic so anything that stood up against the spud was fine by her.
He was also a heavy drinker, had died of liver malfunction, and I wondered sometimes which man she was trying to save.
One thing for sure – she had green eyes, a wicked smile with slightly large teeth that must have left a few love bites in their time, and a figure, in that starched sloping uniform, to rouse many an ailing patient from his sick-bed.
I had, while she scoffed in like a trooper, nurses being forever hungry, told her the tale of The Case of the Missing Medals. Not quite The Maltese Falcon but you never can tell.
My reading matter had shifted recently from Chandler to Dashiell Hammett who had the same hard-boiled sultry dames with blond hair and blood-red lipstick. But his heroes seemed to suffer more pain than Chandler’s.
Rosalind leant back, sipped at her Barr’s Irn Bru and fixed me with those green eyes. “So what’s the plan?”
“Two-pronged. One is I find out all I can about Barry Wilson, the other is that I go to see him and ask it straight. Even if he denies, he may reveal something.”
“I like the first one better.”
“If you pitch up – he’ll know who you are.”
“Unless I am heavily disguised.”
“And if what that shitty wee nyaff Alec Mangan says [nurses swear a lot] is anywhere near the truth – you could end up where I work.”
I tried to arrange my features into the guileless façade of a man who would never stick his head into the lion’s jaws but she shot me a look of disbelief and slugged back the Irn Bru.
“I have an early shift tomorrow – the Kidney Ward, a bundle of laughs – I need to wash off the muck and get to my scratcher. Pronto.”
“Can I come?”
She smiled despite misgivings. “It’s the least I can do. After all – you made the tea.”
And so to bed. But our sweet slumbers were interrupted by a midnight hammering on the door. I stumbled out of the sheets while Rosalind cursed, shoved into my stripy pyjamas and fumbled my way to open up a crack.
A tousle-headed boy with a big square face and hair like a divot gazed back at me. “It’s my Uncle Hughie,” he gasped hoarsely. “Done in.”
Rosalind was right in that a person connected to this affair might land in hospital but it wasn’t myself. I followed divot head, Malkie Johnstone by name, as he informed me, down to the Royal – leaving my sleeping partner muttering about the Kidney Ward.
The boy was near incoherent but as we grubbed our way along in the dark streets, I managed to get out of him where the doing-in had taken place. Cathcart Street, which is a long way from Gibbshill – what the hell was Hughie doing in that neck of the woods? I asked the boy who hung his head and mumbled something that sounded like, “Ma mammy’ll tell ye.” He seemed an awkward strange soul and communication was not his first port of call – so I stopped asking questions and moved as fast as my gammy leg would allow. I had thrown a raincoat over my pyjamas and stuck on a pair of old shoes so I looked like some distant relative of Long John Silver as I limped along.
I was known at the Royal through Rosalind and got smuggled in past the dragon of a matron to where Hughie lay in a small side ward. A worried looking woman was seated beside the bed – she had a round face that seemed better suited to smiling - and looked up as we came in.
Hughie was pale and winced every time he moved, but did not appear too badly damaged. The skin was drawn tight across his cheekbones but no blood or bruises to be seen. His hair was plastered flat like a wee boy going to his first dance.
“What happened to you?” I asked, as Malkie moved behind what I took to be his mammy.
“Just came out the close. Bang. Two men.”
“I heard the shout,” the woman said. “Malcolm and I ran down.”
“Jist as well,” Hughie muttered.
“Recognise them?” I continued.
“Too dark. Too quick.”
“Bigger than me. That wouldnae be hard.”
His lips twisted in a painful smile as he introduced me to the woman, Mary Johnstone, widow of his brother Robert, and mother of Malkie.
Her words tumbled out in a stream. “We’d just had mince and tatties, Hugh was for the bus for the Gibby, we aye eat tardy because Malcom’s at the football practice so we have to wait on him but that’s not my fault.”
“Nothing is your fault, Mary.” Hughie’s comment, fondly if painfully uttered, did nothing to assuage Mary’s sense of guilt – she shot out sentences like a water pump.
As far as I could follow from the scrambled syntax and occasional digressions – as well as Wednesday tea and ginger biscuits, Hughie visited for a Friday supper – not fish, they were good Protestants – mince and tatties, which had been his brother Bob’s favourite, good lean mince, mind you, from Soutar’s the butcher. Malcolm had indoor practice with his team so came back late, often with a bruise or two, he played centre-forward and that’s a terrible place for getting knocked about, they all ate together and of course this night had talked of nothing else but the disgraceful theft of Hugh’s medals, what kind of bad people were in the world and where was the justice? Look at poor Bob who had drowned in an accident at Largs. And then the attack at the bottom of their own close – after money no doubt. Whit a world.
Mary stopped abruptly as if someone had pulled the plug. She turned to look at the man on the bed. For a moment her lip trembled, then she straightened up and I glimpsed a different woman with a decent kind heart. “Well, you men will have things to talk about,” she said quietly. “Men always do. Come on, Malcolm. You have your work in the morning.”
She stood up, leant over Hughie, patted at him awkwardly, and left followed by her silent son. Malkie managed a nod. The door closed. The wee man and I looked at each other until he finally spoke. “He’s an apprentice cooper, Malcolm. Like his father. Good with his hands.”
I had sensed more than one undercurrent during all this but families are often so – a labyrinth – if I have a couple of years to spare on occasion, I’ll ask Rosalind about her own. For the moment I had some other fish to fry.
“How bad are you?”
“Cracked ribs. Strapped up. Two. I’ve had worse.”
“You think it was Wilson’s men?”
“I wouldnae know.”
“Why send for me then?”
“Ye live close by.”
“Hughie, I’ve had sufficient of the one-liners. I’m tired, I’ve been pulled out of my bed and unless you have something more to tell me I’m going back there. You can have a nice wee rest and I will see you in the morning. Now – do you have something to tell me?”
I was beginning to have a feeling that some game was being played that involved me being kept in a state of ignorance. Hughie however did not look impressed by my incisive declaration and a flinty look settled on his face.
“Ye’re gey full of puff for a man that’s carrying my fiver.”
“Already spent it. Wine, women and song.”
“Now who’s got the one-liners?”
Our eyes met for the first time that night. The fierce blue in his was diminished. Clouded. By pain or was something else troubling him? Hughie nodded as if he had made some decision. “The Forsythe brothers. Pals tae you?”
“Big Neilly is for sure. Shug and Jaffa just come along for the ride.” I had a flash in my mind of the three of them – good-natured Neanderthals until aroused – battering the hell out of the bookies’ hard men who had been battering hell out of me. “They helped me out of a predicament.”
“Ask them – tae keep an eye open on Mary and Malcolm, eh? For a few days.”
“Why would Mary and Malcolm be involved?”
“Jist – ask Big Neilly. I’ll pay good money!”
A pleading note had crept into his voice and it was more upsetting than if he had screamed the roof down. What was he hiding? What the hell was going on? “All right,” I replied. “I’ll have a word. But they’ll be conspicuous.”
“Bigger the better.” An approaching ambulance wailed outside in the silence.
“Anything else you want to tell me?”
For a moment Hughie looked as if he might say something but then he started coughing and reached for his hankie. From its depths the words came – thick and muffled.
“Away and investigate. That’s yer job.”
It was a claggy Saturday morning. Morton reserves versus Dumbarton of the same ilk. The first team had been knocked out of the Scottish Cup, which was playing that weekend so this was the bill of fare at Cappielow – needless to say, no barrage balloons. About 120 hardy souls, 10 of whom were from Dumbarton, watched a dispiriting collection of trialists and old gunslingers boot the ball to and fro.
One of the boys reminded me disturbingly of myself – clever on the ball, fast, but too careless. Good but perhaps not quite good enough. A winger of course.
I watched for a while, gathered up my nerve and then made my way round the back to where the offices had their position. Alec Mangan had supplied me with a card that purported to make me a reporter from the Greenock Telegraph seeking an interview with Barry Wilson. Naturally if there were any problems arising he would deny it utterly.
The best thing about Alec was that you could always trust him to be untrustworthy.
The “office” was a large room where three young girls sat typing and answering various correspondence. Two of then were obviously bored stiff, dreaming of dances at Cragburn Pavilion where Prince Charming chewed gum and showed a nifty turn of foot but the third, whose name tag on the desk announced Senga Baxter, hunched seriously over the Remington, horn-rimmed glasses gleaming. A plain wee soul, sharp-featured, but she was the only one who looked up.
I had rung and bluffed my way to an appointment, obviously with one of the other girls because Senga did not look impressed by either the card I showed her or myself. I did not blame her – there’s something about me that suggests I am rarely to be what I claim.
“Martin Scobie?” she pronounced dubiously – a name I had written on the card and was already beginning to regret. “Ye’ll have to wait a minute.”
She then walked towards a door that had the words CHAIRMAN WILSON in large letters and I noticed that her back view was as uncompromising as the front. After a moment, having disappeared through the door, she reappeared, stepped to the side, gestured a trifle impatiently and in I went to the lion’s den.
A man stood looking out of a large CinemaScope type window that stretched almost the length of the wall and overlooked the Cappielow pitch. “Shoot for God’s sake!” he shouted, as far down below the trialist I had noted, hesitated, then dabbed the ball daintily towards a non-existent centre-forward. A defender hoofed it into the sky, the referee blew for half-time and the man shook his mop of blond hair in disgust. “If that’s the future, we’re fucked.”
He turned and smiled at me. “I’ll have to remedy that my friend!”
Barry Wilson. Stocky, immaculate, tanned face, light brown eyes but Hughie was right – small in size and a little too close together, but nobody’s perfect. We introduced ourselves, tea and biscuits were waiting on a side table, I produced a better class writing pad than the Woolworth’s one and we had a pleasant chat about Morton, his hopes for the team, how football was in the dark ages as regards selling it to a new audience. Miss Glasgow and the barrage balloon were only the beginning – Barry wanted an all singing, all dancing show.
“Between you and me, Martin,” said he. “Football should be better than sex!”
“That wouldn’t be hard in Greenock,”
Barry roared with laughter but all the time his eyes (small or not) had been measuring me up while I did the same to him. I couldn’t identify his accent, faint traces of Glasgow perhaps but – “Are you thinking about something, Martin?”
“I was trying to place your accent,” I answered, honestly for once – you can always try being honest once in a blue moon.
“I am from all over the place. Universal, that’s Barry Wilson!” He laughed again but I sensed he was losing interest – his gaze flicked to the window where the two teams were creeping back onto the field. Now or never.
“I expect you heard about the tragedy of a valued servant?” I put to him in newspaper speak.
“Hughie Johnstone. His medals stolen, a vicious assault that left him lying within an inch of his life at the Royal Infirmary.”
I had deliberately over-exaggerated the circumstance just to see the result. If Barry was connected he’d know from his goons that the assault had been short-lived. Sure enough, he blinked for a second before replying. “That’s terrible. An inch of his life?”
“So the rumour goes.” He’d check of course and find out otherwise but for the moment I had him on the back foot. “D’you think they’re connected?”
“The theft and the vicious attack.”
“How would I know?”
“I’ll put that down as no comment.” I was beginning to enjoy myself in Ming the Merciless mode. “It is also rumoured that you offered to buy these medals.”
“And that Hughie refused.”
“I – merely suggested to him that he could loan them to the club, to hang in the board room – at no time did I offer money.”
“Is that because of the financial situation?” This was dealt from the bottom of the pack and stopped Barry dead. “It is also rumoured that the well’s running dry.”
His hand shot out to a nearby desk and pressed a buzzer. “I think it’s time you left,” he said tightly – smile gone, eyes like slits. The hair was still blond but the tan had paled.
“Oh but I’ve got a load more interlocutions –“ The door flew open and two men stood there – Bill and Ben the flowerpot men they were not. As Alec Mangan had foretold, it was their very stillness that conveyed the menace. Both had broad flat impassive faces. I now remembered that Ming the Merciless had ended up a corpse behind the midden bins.
The notebook was wrenched from my hands and given to Barry. Much good it would do him – the “shorthand” I had written was hieroglyphic nonsense. That thought comforted me as I was hustled ignominiously out through the office. Senga looked up once more and her thin lips twisted in either derision or sympathy – difficult to tell.
I was booted out from a side door of the stadium. Bill and Ben had not altered expression or said a word. The kick crunched up between my legs and the pain was considerable though, thank the lord, it missed the crown jewels by a fraction.
The door slammed shut as I lay on the street looking at the dog ends in the gutter. A subdued shout came from within the stadium. Morton had just scored. I hoped it was the trialist.
A fine drizzle descended in swirling layers over the Broomhill football pitch as two amateur teams got stuck into one another. The centre-forward of one side was Malkie Johnstone – he’d had a severe haircut since I last saw him and it made his head look even squarer.
Hughie stood among the spectators and shook his head as Malkie tenaciously shielded the ball from two of the opposition. “He’s should have got rid of it tae the winger but he doesnae think quick enough.” The ball was booted off Malkie’s toe and the winger, who bore a keen resemblance to a smooth-haired dachshund, spat in disgust at such neglect.
I had returned to the hospital to find that the wee man had discharged himself and left me a note that I could find him at the Broomie. He held himself somewhat stiffly but then so did I. As we watched the game I filled him in on what had happened.
“So – whit’s the next step?” he asked, before calling out. “Wing, Malcolm. Gie the ball tae the winger!”
The boy looked up and his jaw dropped – he obviously had not known Hughie was watching – then he automatically hoofed the ball towards the dachshund who scuttled to the corner flag and hammered in a cross. Malkie hardly rose off the ground but the ball somehow skited off his head and ended up in the net.
Amid all the celebrations he looked once more towards Hughie – there was a strange haunted expression on his face – I wondered if his uncle had noticed.
It would seem not. The wee man nodded in satisfaction. Then repeated his question. “So – whit’s the next step?”
The final whistle blew – a hard-fought draw. As the teams trooped off in the drizzle I noticed the giant figure of Big Neilly waiting near the changing rooms. He nodded solemnly and I waved back. Hughie had also spotted the big man.
Before I headed to Cappielow I had dropped in where the brothers were wolfing down a gargantuan breakfast dished up by their mother Jean – a diminutive woman with a sharp tongue who ruled them with a rod of iron. She had a soft spot for me since I had helped Neilly with his maths homework at school so my request was a done deal.
“Shug and Jaffa will be hanging about Cathcart Street frightening the pigeons so your family will be safe until we get this sorted.”
“How do we do that?”
I took a deep breath. “The first thing is to find your medals. If Wilson is the guilty party – where would he keep the case?”
“Somewhere close. The coal bunker maybe?”
I was about to snap back a rebuke when I saw that Hughie was just holding on in no more, his cheek-bones pulled tight by pain. I wasn’t doing too hot myself – my groin area had a sort of dull brooding ache that had little to do with love.
“You shouldn’t be here, Hughie.”
“I’ve never missed a match that boy’s played. I’m not going to start now.” He pulled out his hankie and covered his mouth for a second, coughed, and then lifted his face to the drizzle. “I’ll walk Malkie down, it’s no’ far. I can say hello to Mary. She’ll be madder than a wet hen at me.”
“With every reason. You should be in your bed.”
“I might stay there a few days. They have a spare room.”
He turned in the direction of the changing rooms and then stopped. “If you find out where he’s planked it. Whit do you do then?”
I smiled as my groin suffered. “I intend to steal it back.”
Barry Wilson had a large house in the posh environs of Ardgown Square; a leafy retreat where the capitalists of Greenock counted their ill-gotten gains, as my father would have put it. On the opposite side to the swanky Tontine Hotel, the place was rented and must have cost Barry a pretty packet but no doubt suited his needs and image.
I found this out from Alec Mangan who, surprisingly, had not been at all troubled when Wilson had rung the Telegraph threatening all kinds of reprisal. Told his editor it must have just been some joker on the sly and lit another Lucky Strike. One of Alec’s few redeeming features – he just loved to cause mischief. Sadly he had been unable to find anything from his Glasgow contacts except that Barry Wilson had been involved in a money swindle as regards some building project but the case had collapsed though lack of evidence or skilfully applied bribery of the investigating polis.
Another useful fact Alec supplied was that this very Saturday night there was a big business reception at the Town Hall – all the movers and shakers. Barry would be among the honoured guests glad-handing his way to glory. But while the cat’s away – the mice do play.
I slunk at a safe distance from the address in the evening gloom and watched as Barry and what looked like another Miss Glasgow, all dolled up with her cleavage safely protected from the insidious raindrops, swanned into his limo with the tell-tale number-plate BW 303030. It was driven by one of the flowerpot men, the other sat beside in the front. Very cosy.
Off they went. Now all I had to do was find a way in.
Luckily Rosalind was on night shift, so I’d managed to disguise my aching bones and even more luckily, I had not bruised up because she would find her path to that area by hook or by crook.
How would Sam Spade handle this?
Case the joint, no doubt.
There was a narrow wee lane at the back of the houses for the midden men to collect domestic detritus so the posh folk didn’t have to actually see them and I crept along till I came to the back garden door. It was, of course, locked.
The wall was high with broken glass imbedded at the top but I noticed that there was a gap just above the door: maybe they’d run out of milk bottles.
I turned to Big Neilly – remiss of me not to mention him before but a burglar needs company – and whispered a request. “Any chance of a lift-up?”
He nodded reluctantly. “How’d ye get back though?”
Good point. “I’ll stand on the bins,” I replied hopefully.
Neilly shook his head, cradled his massive hands and hoicked me up so that I could scramble over like something out of The Colditz Story. I dropped down and sidled up through the shrubbery, rhododendron bushes, which I always associate with cemeteries – until I reached the back of the house. There was a side path that led to some French windows that looked mildewed and unused but, importantly, they had a shoogly handle that might be prised open.
Perhaps Barry was so confident that he could not envisage a surprise incursion from the rear or perhaps the hellish Greenock weather had done me an unwitting favour and that path to the garden was rarely utilised, but by the light of my small torch, powered by Eveready batteries, I bore down on the handle and shoved inwards. If it was bolted on the other side, all would be in vain, but it wasn’t – and I was in.
But it’s always easier to get into something than it is to extricate yourself.
I didn’t dare put on any of the lights and it was a nerve-shredding business stumbling around by faint torchlight in unknown terrain. The room I had come into was the main reception but the stairs leading upwards in the hall seemed a better bet. I was relying on Barry Wilson’s ego – if indeed he had the case – where would he put it?
Somewhere he could look at it. A private place perhaps? Possibly in the company of Miss Glasgow? A comfy place. Where they could coorie doon thegither.
And there it was. On the wall. Opposite the king-size bed. The light flickered on the medals hung neatly inside the case.
In the main people are more predictable than they would like you to think but why – for God’s sake – unless Hughie was right and the man had won nothing, was empty inside, just a big barrage balloon – would Wilson want to steal it? And how did he manage the theft? I had an idea about that but it was unpleasant to contemplate and could wait for the moment.
I lifted the case off its nail – could the cheapskate not have used a decent picture hook? – and trying not to gawk at certain sexual accoutrements revealed by torchlight and scattered on the bed – tucked the case under my arm and made my getaway.
And this is where I made a huge mistake that put the only person I care about into the category of Joey the Budgie. Why do it? I don’t know – perhaps a suppurating desire for vengeance against all these slimy bastards that rule the roost.
It was a mistake, however, that I would regret for the rest of my life.
On the way down the stairs, my torchlight picked out a varnished wooden door that obviously led to an office or study of some kind. Curiosity killed the cat. I pushed. The door opened. In I went. There appeared to be no windows to the outside world so I chanced the light going on.
Now I had moved in category from Avenging Angel to prurient intruder. I lifted the lid of a large oak desk and keeked inside. A few paper knives but nothing much else. A small drawer to the side caught my eye. I slid it open. Nothing. I pulled too far and the whole thing came out. At the back of the drawer panel was a small key, sellotaped into position.
I could have left it there. But I was lost in a dream of Sam Spade. It cost me. The tape was easy to remove but where did the key fit? In the lower part of the desk was a small cupboard – I tried to turn the handle. It was locked. I put the key into the lock and turned. Click.
In the cupboard shelving was a single file. A binder. I flipped it open.
Maths was my strong point at school. English next. Common sense, zero. I read enough to know that this was disquieting, slammed the door shut, stuck the key back into place and found I was still holding the file as if it was unexploded dynamite.
Back out. Jammed the French windows together. Stood on the rubbish bins, passed file and case down to Neilly, scrambled back over and sweating buckets despite the cold night air – ran for my life.
I thought I was in a film but found out later – the real world plays for keeps.
Rosalind came home from night shift about seven o’clock in the morning, wolfed down the bacon and eggs I had assembled, gave me a slightly greasy kiss, muttered that I smelt like a cigarette factory and then stumbled off exhaustedly to bed. The Kidney Ward had struck again.
I was just as pleased. If I told her what I had been doing, or had in mind, she would have had a blue fit.
The night before I had thanked Neilly, sent him off to deliver the medal case to Hughie in Cathcart Street and then found Alec Mangan in his dive, The Regal Bar, close to the Telegraph offices, to sit beside him wreathed in Lucky Strike fumes as he leafed through the file with increasing relish.
Neither of us were qualified accountants but from what we could glean, it would seem that the books were most definitely cooked. Not only that but it appeared that, having siphoned off a fair amount of money from the gates and bank loans with Cappielow as collateral, Barry and his all year tan were preparing to make that money disappear into a fictitious firm’s bank account in Glasgow – and not for the first time by the looks of it.
I left Alec salivating at the prospect of a headline bonanza but worried at the same time what the consequences of that might be, given the criminal connections Barry Wilson was rumoured to possess. My ace reporter had no wish to end up in the Clyde with a block of concrete for company.
As for me? I was on a high, the adrenaline hero, limp forgotten, Glasgow gangsters didn’t scare me, the Sam Spade of the Welfare State – I should have paid more heed to Alec’s reservations and I should have remembered that when Alec gets paranoid, he drinks heavy. And when he drinks heavy, he talks too much.
My plan was to take the file to a proper accountant, a friend of mine, Ross Mackie, make sure that my conclusions were correct, then let Alec break the story and the police could take it from there.
That was the plan. But they gang aft agley.
Once Rosalind had snuggled down and drifted off, I looked down at her a moment before I left. A strand of black hair had fallen over one eye and I gently prised it free. She muttered in some annoyance and then was out like a light.
I left her there. Sleeping beauty.
My first stop was Cathcart Street. Jaffa and Shug had set up a cardboard box as a table and were playing a game of three-card brag for matchsticks. They had, it would seem, become a fixture in the street for no one paid them any attention. Fresh cups of tea at their elbow indicated that Mary was on the case. “All quiet on the Western Front,” said Jaffa who was the reader in the family.
“Not long now, boys,” I replied and breezed up the close.
Hughie was freshly shaved and neatly turned out though the shirt was too big for him and I guessed it might be one of his brother’s. He was wearing his glasses, held together with a piece of sticky tape and I assumed they had been damaged in the fracas. On the table in front of him lay the case – he had taken the medals out and was in the process of polishing them carefully. Mary was in the kitchen and I could see a large hambone sticking out of an even larger pot. Lentil soup for sure.
I suppose that I was expecting a modicum of praise but the wee man, beyond a nod of acknowledgement, went on with his cleaning – Malkie was at another table trying to assemble one of these “ship inside a bottle” gadgets that Woolworths were selling to the pure at heart. It was a fiddly business involving raising the mast inside the glass by pulling on various strings. The boy showed a surprisingly delicate touch as he manoeuvred the pieces while the pot bubbled next door in domestic bliss, yet I could sense an underlying tension.
“Ye did well,” said Hughie finally. “How d’ye manage it?”
“Best you don’t know,” I replied. “But you can forget the retribution idea.”
He said nothing and went on polishing. Malkie teased the mast erect but it seemed to give him little satisfaction. Mary was enveloped in the steam from the hambone.
I was tempted to try to garner some attention by mentioning the possibility of a greater retribution waiting for Mr Wilson but thought I’d let sleeping dogs lie. On the wall just above where the boy sat, was a photograph of a younger Hughie with a man who bore a strong liking to Malkie. A hefty specimen going slightly to fat – his arm was around Hughie and both men were grinning fit to bust. “Is that Bob?” I asked.
Hughie nodded. Malkie kept his head down. There didn’t seem much else to say – I felt as if I had scored a goal but no one was celebrating.
There was another photo of two men in uniform. Army boys. From during the war it would seem, they would be the right age for that. Both stood to attention, Hughie holding a rifle and what looked like a regimental prize. Dead eye. I looked at him now with his broken specs – life changes people. The other man had sharp thin features – for some reason they rang a bell but I had enough investigations on my plate.
“Well,” I remarked a touch gormlessly, “I better get back on the case.”
“I thought the case was over,” said Hughie sharply.
“Not yet,” I replied, heading for a fall. “Not quite yet.”
It took me most of the day to conclude my business. First of all to Ross Mackie, a mild-natured man who concealed a razor sharp brain behind a delicate demeanour. He agreed with my initial reaction – good to know I hadn’t completely lost my mathematical marbles – and advised me to take it to the authorities because it was a complicated welter of figures and would take a wheen of time to decipher. But there was no doubt that something was and had been crooked. A clever piece of twisted bookkeeping but with the file – it could be unravelled. Hold on to it.
I took his advice and then I went looking for Alec Mangan to let him loose on a banner headline but, despite a search, the man was not to be found at the Telegraph offices or his usual dives. Though it was Sunday there were private clubs where the booze was plentiful, mind you the clientele left a lot to be desired. Alec had been drinking in some, talking big and drinking hard but then he had disappeared – that’s what they told me anyway.
I even tried the Willow Bar as a last resort. Jimmy Lapsley often worked there on a Sunday to tidy up the mess – Alec might have tried to muscle in. But no.
Jimmy shook his head. “By the way,” he said dolefully, “Whit were you and Rosalind up tae? I thought the ceiling was going tae thump in. You want tae control your animal instincts, John. A time and place for that sort o’ thing. On a Sunday tae.”
I hadn’t been back all that day. An alarm bell rang like a fire drill in my head. I ran out of the pub, up the stairs, unlocked the door – Rosalind was nowhere and the place was trashed – ripped apart, all the drawers opened, papers strewn everywhere as if a wild beast had been let loose.
I stumbled into the bedroom – the sheets had been trampled to the floor and there was a thick cloying smell in the air. Chloroform of some kind.
My heart was pounding as if it would burst out of the chest cavity – in the middle of the bed lay a folded piece of paper. Once opened – the words were clear enough.
IF YOU WANT HER BACK, YOU COME AND GET HER. SOLO.
How the hell had Wilson known where to track me down?
Then I found the answer. Rosalind’s black stockings lay in a heap on the floor. For want of better to do, I stooped to pick them up. My eye was caught by something near the door. I picked that up as well. A cigarette butt. Lucky Strike.
It was well dark by the time I got to Cappielow. A taxi straight there. Solo. Cursing my own stupidity and trying to appease the cold knot of fear that had formed in my guts. Rosalind was the only thing I had in my life. And I had put her in terrible danger through my own lunacy and selfish pride. I should have known if I took on someone as powerful and lethal as Barry Wilson that anyone close to me would suffer the consequences.
The door that I had been unceremoniously booted from out into the street, was slightly open. A mocking invitation. I took a deep breath and walked inside.
An empty stadium is an eerie venue. Echoes of my footsteps in the silence. A few shafts of light from stray lamps in the darkness. It had finally stopped raining but the dampness seemed in the very bones of the place.
Then a sharp click and the practice lamps came on, flooding the pitch with light. Three figures came from the side and walked out into the centre circle. Rosalind between the two heavies. No more Bill and Ben. Too deadly for that. Her hands were tied behind with a rag of some kind wrapped round her mouth. They stopped. Facing me.
I walked towards them, clutching tightly at the file. A straight swap – that was my only hope.
“So. Mr Brodie, I believe? Got the name right this time, eh?” Barry Wilson walked out from the tunnel entrance, grinning like a baboon, with a furze of hair round his head like a perverted halo. “Your friend Mr Mangan has been on the sauce all day. Shooting off his mouth about how he had the dirt on yours truly. Lucky a friend of mine heard. Tipped me off. I had a word with Mr Mangan. He sang like a lintie. All the dirt.”
“Where is he now?”
“On a slow boat to China!”
Barry roared with laughter at his little joke – all the time we had been talking, I had never taken my eyes off Rosalind. Her face was white and set, gaze steady and fixed on me. Her body was rigid, temper or fear, hard to tell. The heavies were on each side, grasping her by the elbow.
“A straight swap, “ I said. “I’ll forget everything I know.”
“Of course you will,” said Barry. “The file please?”
I nodded towards Rosalind. “She comes first.”
In turn, he nodded to his men who released Rosalind to walk forwards. Barry did the same so they both arrived at the one time. I handed over the file.
“Thank you,” Barry remarked and then punched me full in the mouth. As I sprawled on the muddy pitch Rosalind kicked out at him but Wilson skipped nimbly aside. “Temper, temper,” he chided and then turned to walk away. “You see, Mr Brodie,” he called back. “I’m afraid I could not take your silence for granted, unless I arrange it for myself.” As I got shakily to my feet, Bill and Ben moved unhurriedly in our direction. “I regret this action but – better safe than sorry eh? Once you disappear, that’s me. King of the World!”
As he waved the file triumphantly in the air to prove a point, there was a sharp crack of sound from the darkness. A bullet hit the file and knocked it out of Barry’s hands. No one moved for what seemed a lifetime then one of the heavies made a move – was it Bill or was it Ben? – for his inside pocket. Another crack. He howled in pain, clutched at his leg and fell flat on his face.
I moved to untie Rosalind and pulled away the rag.
“You stupid bastard,” she said.
Into all this walked Hughie Johnstone, an old army rifle in his hands. He waved it in the direction of Wilson and the heavy. “On your faces.” They did so. Hughie – master of the midfield – turned to me. “Make sure they’re clean.”
While he covered me, I frisked the prostrate trio. Bill and Ben had flick knives but nothing more. Barry had no weapon. Too confident by half.
Hughie looked over to Rosalind. “Are you all right, hen?”
She nodded. “They chloroformed me. Otherwise I’d have put them in the Kidney Ward.”
“Chloroform? And you a nurse as well? Damned cheek.”
Rosalind smiled and my heart jumped with joy – even though she was smiling at another man. “How the hell did you get here?” I asked this other man.
“Been waiting near two hours.”
“But – how did you know?”
“I had a good conspirator.”
Out of the darkness walked a tiny figure. Senga Baxter, horn-rims gleaming, mouth set, and now I saw the similarity to the soldier in the photo with Hughie. Explanations could wait. I took a heavy-duty air pistol out of my pocket that was in the shape of a German Luger. “You beat me to it,” I remarked to Hughie.
Rosalind was black-affronted. “Where did you get that for god’s sake?”
“Ming the Merciless. The owner woman. Her husband used to shoot at the pigeons. Dead now. She gave it to me as payment. A private eye needs a functioning weapon.”
“I’ll give ye functioning weapon,” Rosalind observed grimly.
A groan from the wounded heavy brought our attention to the horizontal villains. A moment of silence then Hughie walked over and placed the muzzle of the rifle behind Wilson’s head. The man whimpered in fear, but the rifle was removed and Hughie lifted his foot and accurately pressed Barry Wilson’s face into the mud of Cappielow.
“Retribution,” said the wee man.
Some mornings later, Hughie and I sat in the Willow Bar with two cups of Jimmy’s truly terrible coffee on the table. It had a chicory essence content that would have loosened the bowels of King Kong but neither of us had the heart to complain.
The police had found Alec Mangan trussed up in the cellar of Wilson’s Ardgowan residence but by that time the story had been broken by a cub reporter on the Greenock Telegraph, which served the miserable bugger right. Even if Alec’s claim was true that he had been a chain-smoking kidnap victim, used as a front to get Rosalind to open the door – he was still a deceitful creep.
The books were still being scrutinised but it appeared that there had been embezzlement on a cosmic scale going on and eventually the whole financial edifice would have collapsed. By that time, of course, the bold Barry would have been long gone.
So now both Hughie and I were somewhat compromised public heroes but now we had our own reckoning to make.
Rosalind was still sore at me – with good reason – and though we exchanged a few terse words over the filled rolls, I had been warned that the prospects of nookie (her word, not mine) in the foreseeable future were next to nothing.
So I was feeling sore as well – plus the fact that I still had a fat lip from Wilson’s punch.
“You set me up,” I accused the wee man.
“That girl Senga Baxter – she’d tipped you off something shifty was going on at Cappielow and when the medals were stolen, you tried two birds with the one stone. You set me running like an idiot, hoping that I might just get back the medals but more than that – uncover the dirty tricks that were going on. You used me, Hughie!”
The wee man nodded soberly. “True enough – but you owe that girl Senga. She was working extra on the Sunday in the office, heard Wilson on the extension phone telling his pals in Glasgow what was going tae happen. Her father was in the army wi’ me, ye know – Willie Marshall –“
“I don’t care if he was in the Boy Scouts!”
Hughie continued, unperturbed. “She phoned her father. He got me. And I got my rifle.”
“I thought you were supposed to hand these things in?”
“I forgot.” Hughie coughed into his hankie. “If it hadnae been for Senga – you’d be a goner.”
“What about my air pistol?” I replied defensively. “I had that on hand.”
“Okay for pigeons.”
I now knew how players felt when they tried to pass Hughie in the midfield. You always ended up on the wrong side of the ball. But there was a deeper, darker subject to be addressed – a harder tackle. Straight in. Head up. “It was Malcolm who stole the medals, wasn’t it, Hughie?”
Jimmy at this moment switched on the radio and the words of “Stranger in Paradise” filled the air while Hughie sat there like a stone. I signalled jimmy to turn it down and Tony Bennett was reduced to a plaintive mumble as I continued. “I don’t know how Wilson got to him. Money, maybe – or promised him a trial with the Juniors – but mostly Malkie did it – I would imagine – out of jealousy.”
“You and Mary. It sticks out a mile. The way she looks at you. The way you look at her.” I was beginning to sound like Tony Bennett, so I switched to a tougher edge. “Bob – your brother – drowned in Largs – what was all that about?”
The Blizzard, Issue Seventeen
“He was a heavy drinker. Checked intae a hotel wi’ three of his mates. They got mortal on the whisky. He got intae a fight somewhere. Lost his way. Fell in the water. Malkie thought the world of his father but he was evil bad in drink. Especially at home.”
I was about to say that might have been why Bob had got plastered in a faraway place like Largs but kept my big mouth shut for a change and tried another tack. “Have you spoken with Malkie about the medals?”
Hughie coughed into his hankie – I was beginning to wonder if it was more of a smokescreen habit than the bronchial tubes of Greenock – before glancing up. Eyes blue and steady.
“I did. Last night. You are correct in your assumption. He took the spare set of keys I left at Mary’s and did the deed. Not as daft as you look.”
“And the assault on you?”
“Malkie told me – that he had started to feel bad at what he did. Told Wilson that he might spill the beans. The battering was tae warn him.”
“They should have battered him then.”
“First come, first served.” A glint of humour showed in Hughie’s eyes for a moment, then his face set itself in solemn lines. “He feels bad about it now, that’s for sure.”
It would be dealt with in the family. Even if Wilson tried to smear Malkie, who would believe him? The man was a busted flush and all his gangster pals in Glasgow would avoid him like the plague, lest they get contaminated.
Hughie took out his wallet and laid four precise fivers out on the table. “One each for Neilly and his brothers. Fourth for you. The case is closed.” He stood up as Jimmy Young succeeded Tony Bennett. “Unchained Melody”.
“You and Mary – what’s going to happen there?”
“Time will tell,” said Hughie. He nodded to me, turned and marched out, brisk of step, without another word.
I sat there with the lousy coffee, isolated, abandoned and bereft. The case was over. I would have my day in court but the case was over. Jimmy Young warbled about time only being able to do so much. I hoped that was true as regards Rosalind Connor.
“Ye want some mair of the Java?” called Jimmy the barman. I shook my head. Had enough punishment for the nonce. He turned the radio off and shuffled from one foot to the other. He of course knew, like all the town, about rumoured events at Cappielow and my possible connection to them but being a typical Greenock man he wouldn’t ask unless I gave the hint. Finally, he broke the long silence.
“Ye fancy a game of dominoes?”
Coda. There has to be a coda, does there not?
About a week later, the atmosphere was still frosty at the hacienda. I sat in one corner reading The Glass Key and Rosalind, who at least was still in residence, sat in the other reading a nursing manual because she was sitting her exams soon to be a ward sister.
A knock at the door. Sharp. Peremptory. I opened the portal cautiously and there was the freshly spruced Hughie Johnstone, a resplendent Mary beside him, with Malkie, hair combed flat and even wearing a tie, lurking at the back.
“You are invited tae a dead posh tightener at the Tontine Hotel,” announced Hughie. “I’ve decided tae make an honest woman of her!”
Mary gave him an affectionate shove and Malkie managed a smile. For my part, I took a deep breath to respond that celebrations were on hold chez moi at the moment, when a voice cut in from behind.
“Just give me a minute to get my glad rags on!” I turned to see Rosalind disappearing into the bedroom. Women are a mystery.
We took a taxi there, Hughie’s treat. It was as if nothing bad had happened and all was sweetness and light. We joked, poked fun at Malkie’s neckwear, which turned out to be a Glasgow Rangers tie, and arrived at the Tontine like the royal family.
While the girls sped on ahead followed closely by Malkie, my sleeve was tugged by Hughie to halt us at the door. We both turned to look back across Ardgowan Square to where Wilson’s house was now no doubt in the process of being rented to another chancer.
“I saw ye once playing for the Juniors,” Hughie said out of the blue. “You were better than average. A lot better.”
As he turned and made for the bar, one of the waiters came out of a side entrance and his foot slipped on the tartan carpeting. The tray he was holding, tiled, and a roll slithered off heading for the floor. It was intercepted neatly by the wee man’s instep, flipped up to the knee, then the hand, finally deposited back on the tray, and without breaking stride Hughie was gone.
“He’s a football man,” I said as I passed the waiter. “They’re a different breed.”