The News continues the serialisation of Long Way Down by Tony Black, the city crime writer hailed by Irvine Welsh as ‘Britain’s best’
You live the life I do, you meet people. Most you wouldn’t want to run into on a dark night but some of them you’re glad to know. Mac the Knife was wearing his hardy Glasgow chib-merchant stare when I clocked him at the Foot of the Walk. It would be too crass to use the old phrase you can take the man out of Glasgow etc but if it was possible to bottle the No Mean City vibe then Mac was on the intravenous version. I watched a jakey, torn Costa cup in hand, try to tap him for a few pence and felt my insides wince for the poor soul. As I sidled up I could hear the jakey getting into his ‘Just 30p for bus fare to visit my mam in hospital’ speech.
Mac’s reply was delivered deadpan. ‘You want to join her? I can put you in an ambulance there for nothing.’
The paraffin lamp was on the back foot as I arrived, his sudden sobriety seemed to have been dispensed from Mac’s thinned stare. It was a look that said impending violence was a cert. He was still retreating, backwards, yawing on wobbly legs as I put a palm on Mac’s shoulder.
‘Alright, mate . . .’
Mac lit. ‘Gus, lad.’
Greetings over we made our way up the Walk towards Robbie’s Bar. This neck of Leith is like a kaleidoscope, sights continually shifting. We’d had the gutting of the new tram tracks close down a stack of old and familiar businesses. In their place were new pound stores and Polish grocers running a sideline in protein-shakes by the bucket. I grimaced at the over-tanned, over-muscled meat-head whose cardboard cut-out sat in a shop window.
Robbie’s was reassuringly familiar. A drinker’s bar. A Leith legend. It felt like home. Mac got the pints in and I nodded him towards a table by the door. ‘What’s wrong with the bar?’ he said.
‘Not today.’ He got the message, even painted a look of caution on his coupon that tugged at his half-Chelsea smile.
I blew the head off my Guinness and sat down. Mac was already on the sniff for information.
‘So what’s the score?’ he said.
‘Christ, I haven’t seen you for weeks. Have you no small-chat for me?’
He creased his brow. Dropped one corner of his mouth, where he seemed to be speaking from in a trippy drawl, ‘Do me a favour, Gus, do I look like I’ve been picking tittle-tattle off the allotment?’ The thought of Mac in wellies made me smile. ‘If you were doing any digging it would be because there was a body to dispose of!’
He liked that, seemed to be running the visual image. ‘Cemented into a new motorway flyover is more my style.’
I grinned at him; knew he was only half joking. ‘Right, Mac, I need you to test a few of those contacts of yours.’
The tone turned to the serious notch. ‘Oh, aye?’
I hadn’t known Mac as long as I’d known Barry Fulton. There was a time in my life when I knew hardly anyone like Mac. Since my marriage went tits up, and my career followed suit, I’d met quite a few people like Mac. It was safe to say I wasn’t exactly mixing with the professional-set on the squash court.
‘I have this . . . old friend.’
Mac shook his head, ‘One of them?’
‘No. Barry’s a square-peg . . . he just made a few wrong turns and found himself in Saughton on a twelve stretch.’
I sipped my pint, then: ‘A counter jump.’
Mac winced. ‘Must have been tooled up for a twelve.’
‘He was . . . shall we say, inexperienced.’
‘He must’ve been stupid, Gus . . . doesn’t have Born to Lose tattooed on his head does he?’
I liked the line better the way De Niro delivered it, but I let it slide because I needed his help. ‘Barry would be the first to admit his mistakes, but he got screwed-over by a woman and . . .’
Mac cut in. ‘This isn’t misplaced sympathy, Gus?’
I knew what he was trying to say but anything Debs and I once had was now long gone. It might have taken a while to accept it and a power of drink to wash it down but there it was.
‘Barry got hitched to a coke-head who became a crack-head before the ink was dry on the marriage licence. He was trying to keep house and home together when he got desperate.’
It was the kind of sob story that was meat and drink to Mac. ‘My heart bleeds.’
‘Yeah, well, I thought it would.’ I reached into my jacket pocket and produced a thin roll of twenties. ‘But there’s a drink in it for you if you can help me out.’
His eyes widened then he took the roll and pushed it in his own pocket. ‘Where do I fit in, Gus?’
‘Simple. Barry isn’t a bad lad but he’s been mixing with some bad people . . .’
Mac’s hand shot up. ‘Whoa, wait a minute, who exactly are we talking about?’
I took another sip of Guinness, it did nothing for my nerves as I dropped my voice to the down-low. ‘Boaby Stevens.’
Mac leaned back, took the roll of cash from his pocket and made a show of thrusting it back in my hands. ‘You can get lost, Gus!’
‘Come on, Mac . . . where’s your balls?’
‘Where I want them . . . not dangling from my ears which is where they’ll be if Shakey hears I’ve gone against him!’
I returned the roll of cash to his hand with a little more on top. ‘You’re not going against Shakey, I just need to know what Shakey’s got planned for Barry, that’s all.’
Mac crushed the money in his fist, wagged it at me. ‘It’s not about this, you know.’
‘I know, mate.’
He put the cash away and sighed. ‘What are you looking for?’
‘That’s the question . . .’
I put my elbows on the table, ‘I ran into Danny Murray, he’s working for Shakey, and he wants to find Barry.’
‘Well, I’m guessing it’s not to ask what he wants for his Christmas present.’
I nodded, my mouth dried over as I tried to speak. ‘Barry’s a good lad, like I say, we go way back. I knew him at school for Christsake.’
‘So what, Gus?’
‘So, I’ll find him. Not for Danny Murray or Shakey or a bundle of used notes stuffed in a Racing Post.
“I’ll find him because he’s an old friend and if he’s in some kind of trouble I want to know about it.’
Mac rose from the table. His pint had hardly been touched. He was doing up his coat as he spoke. ‘You still on the same number?’
‘Yeah, I am.’
He nodded. ‘I’ll give you a call.’
I tipped the dregs of Mac’s pint into my own as he left the pub.
LONG Way Down is a novella by acclaimed author Tony Black. Born in Australia and based in Edinburgh, his work has drawn praise from the likes of Irvine Welsh, who branded Tony his “favourite British crime writer”.
He has three novels due out in the coming months, crime fiction duo The Inglorious Dead and Artefacts of the Dead, as well as The Last Tiger, set in Tasmania.
We’ll bring you Long Way Down in its entirety over the next 14 weeks, and there’ll be a chance to win some prizes.
For more on Tony, see www.tonyblack.net.