The News continues the serialisation of Long Way Down by Tony Black, the city crime writer hailed by Irvine Welsh as ‘Britain’s best’
I woke with a ringing in my head and what felt like a bison sitting on my chest. I buried my face back in the pillow but the heavy smell of Marlboros had me gagging. I sat up and swung my legs over the edge of the bed.
My Levis looked too far away, hanging on the back of a chair on the other side of the room. I pushed myself on to my feet and made the pilgrimage over the manky carpet, picking up a freshly-folded white T-shirt and a black V-neck from the laundry bag. Inside ten I was in the neighbourhood of respectable — if unshaven, red-eyed and a gut-rasping cough are your idea of respectable.
I clocked my boots beside the coffee table in the living room but my stomach was too tender to contemplate bending over to lace them up; I sparked another red-top and gazed upwards as the bulb became submerged in swirling blue plumes.
‘Bloody hell, Barry . . .’
I had a day.
24 little hours.
Hardly any time to find him before the statute of limitations ran out on Danny Murray’s patience. The thought of Shakey’s unctuous errand boy calling the shots riled me but at least I’d managed to inveigle some proper information out of him. Midday tomorrow would be too late, he’d said. And that had to be because the Irish mob were planning their job then. If Barry went ahead I knew the consequences and they didn’t bear thinking about. Vivisection with a rusty corkscrew was likely one of the nicer options on the cards.
I dowped my cig, reached for my cherry Docs.
The heavy footwear were a struggle to lace but once in place the bouncing soles felt the part. I picked up the rest of my fags, slotted the Camels in beside the Marlboros and made for the door.
It was cold out, but only a smirry rain that could be fended off by turning the collar up on my Crombie. I headed back up Easter Road, passed the Manna House and the posh offie, then on to the first London Road bus stop. I checked the real-time message board for the next bus to Porty, said, ‘Ten minutes . . .’
I waited the ten minutes.
Waited to see the final countdown turn to ‘due’ but the bus didn’t arrive. The timer changed back to fifteen minutes instead.
‘I don’t believe this . . .’ I shook my head, took hands from my pockets and waved palms either side of my head.
‘Those buses, son . . .’ I turned round on the sound of that word. My heart stung when I heard someone call me ‘son’. I still couldn’t fathom whether it was because I wanted to be someone’s son, or didn’t want to be the one person’s son that I was.
An old bloke in a tweed cap, his nose a riot of burst blood vessels, joined me in shaking heads.
He had their number. ‘Buses are a joke.’
‘They try to blame the tram works.’
‘Well they’ve axed enough of the service to pay for them.’
He shook his head. ‘Aye. And if they ever get the bloody things running, they’ll blame them for taking more buses off the roads.’
I had a sense this conversation could go in circles all day, I clamped it down. Looked the other way. As I glanced over to the laundrette, I found myself wondering about the Polish girl from the night before; I don’t know why, perhaps it was the unusual kindness. Had I even said thanks properly?
She wasn’t there. I could only see the old witch, the Dot Cotton, loading a drier from a yellow plastic laundry basket. She wore a shiny tabard with pale blue checks and two pockets on the front. She reminded me of the battle-scarred cleaners who used to hoover around my desk at The Hootsman, grunting and moaning about the state of the place as an eternal Woodbine dropped ash on my in-tray.
The bus ride out to Porty was the usual trial of screaming and shouting care-in-the-community patients with backing vocals from noisy schoolchildren on the doss. There was a time in my life when I’d have hollered a few notes in their direction myself, but not now. The older I got, the more appealing the path of least resistance became. Could it be I was actually maturing enough to pick my battles carefully. Surely not.
The main access door to Katrina’s block of flats was being held open by the postie for a pram-face mum with a screaming toddler on one hip and a fluorescent buggy with mag-wheels by the other. I kept my distance just long enough for the melee to pass and then I jogged for the slow closing door and took the steps.
I picked out the smell of urine and sickly-sweet Buckfast mingling on the grimy stairwell. Some of the young crew had been in to tag the walls since my last visit, and despite being a respecter of the creative urge that I am, I couldn’t help but think their efforts sucked.
I clattered up the last step and battered on Katrina’s door.
There was no movement beyond.
I ramped up the thuds with the heel of my hand.
Now some stirring. The sound of a plate sliding into the skirting, a knife and fork joining in.
I heard a light switch going on.
Then the bolt turned in the door.
I was given an inch of exposure to the flat. It was more than enough. I pressed my shoulder to the wood and my inch became a mile.
Katrina took a few seconds to register her disgust. ‘Hey, what you playing at?’
I walked through to the front room. The place was in darkness. I pulled open the curtains and the grey Scottish skies brought a familiar dim pallor to the proceedings. Katrina slumped in the door’s jamb. ‘I told you Barry’s not here.’
I tried a few doors, more for effect than anything else. The rooms were all empty.
‘I can see that, Katrina . . .’
‘Well get lost then.’
‘Tut-tut . . . such a temper.’ I walked over to the spot where the Gola bag had sat yesterday, the blue shag-pile carpet displayed a familiar depression. ‘I hope you’re not going to make me swear, Katrina . . . do you know why?’
I pinned back my mouth. ‘Because I only swear when I lose my temper . . . I’d hate to lose my temper with you, Katrina.’
She looked at me through drooping eyelids. If there was a thought distilling behind them it deserted her. She opted for the same old. ‘He’s not here.’
‘No, I can see that . . . and neither is his bag.’
She put a hand to her mouth. Her chin became dimpled like a lemon. ‘I threw it out . . .’
I jumped at her. Pinned her scrawny neck to the wall with my forearm and stared into her eyes. ‘Now you have crossed the line, girl . . . If you know what’s good for you, and give half of a toss what’s good for Barry you’ll tell me where the hell he is now!’
Her eyes dimmed.
I roared again. ‘Now!’
‘He’s not here . . . he’s not here.’
‘That’s not what I asked you . . . I want to know where he is?’
She started to whimper, struggling for breath. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Then tell me this, Kat . . . what was Weasel doing here yesterday?’
‘I don’t know . . .’
I pressed my arm harder against her throat. ‘Wrong answer!’
She coughed. ‘He just brought me round a score . . .’
‘And took the bag for Barry?’
She didn’t answer.
‘I’m only going to ask you once more, then I’ll snap your bloody junkie neck, Katrina. Don’t think for a second I won’t, there’s no love lost between us and I know Barry would be better off without you . . .’
‘Aye, okay . . . He took the bag.’
‘Weasel’s flat . . . in Craigmillar.’
I stepped back and let her grab for air. She folded like a hinge before me, coughing and spewing. I didn’t want to know how much grief this pathetic excuse for a human being had caused Barry.
‘Get me the address . . . now.’
LONG Way Down is a novella by acclaimed author Tony Black. Born in Australia and based in Edinburgh, his work has drawn praise from 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.
So far in Long Way Down, journalist turned reluctant investigator Gus Dury is trying to find an old friend wanted by a notorious gangster.