The News begins serialisation of Long Way Down by Tony Black, the city crime writer hailed by Irvine Welsh as ‘Britain’s best’
I was sitting in the laundrette on London Road, just watching the wheels go round as Lennon said. Nowt much was occurring, hadn’t been for a while. You get in that frame of mind, things like Generation Wuss telly and boy-band music start filling the gaps. My wet brain was already looking like something SpongeBob would take off his SquarePants for.
I turned over a stray copy of the paper, but I let it go, turned it aside because I couldn’t face the news, for the first time in my life I didn’t have the concentration for it. I couldn’t face the anti-independence stance on every page either.
The washer stopped, clicked off after a final gut-bursting spin. I took out the pile of wet denim and captured the inevitable stray sock before tipping the lot in the drier. I was fiddling with the Elastoplast which held my crumbling iPod together, contemplating a track from The Stagger Rats, when the temperature in the small enclosure of the laundrette ramped up. I loosened a tab from my soft-pack of Camels and headed out for a smoke. I was stood in the street, sparking up as a horn blared at me from a passing car.
“The hell is that?” I mouthed, mid-gasp of the first draw.
A silver-grey Merc, big one — none of your A-Class rubbish — flicked on the blinkers and turned into Abbeymount. The car was parked up in the bus stop as the driver’s door flipped open and a squat, open-shirted Cockney geezer-lookalike got out. He was flagging and waving to me, the wide-open shirt front wafting a breeze over the forest of chest hair as he called out, “Gus, lad ...”
“Jesus Christ ...” It was Danny Murray. I hadn’t seen him in years but this was already too soon. The sight of him soured the taste of my fag so I dowped it in the gutter.
He was jogging, stuffing a Racing Post under his arm as he approached. The search-light smile was the real sickener though. We’ve a phrase in Scotland, what you after? Seemed to fit the bill.
“Alright, Gus my old son,” he said. I could swear I’d picked up an EastEnders inflection in there; the man was like a bad soap-opera reject from the Eighties. All Pete Beale with his tankard-behind-the-bar-bonhomie. Worst of it was, the man was as Leith as me.
“Danny Murray, you’re coming up in the world,” I nodded to the flash motor, that’s when I clocked the private plate: D Man 109. Wanted to laugh, but felt like crying when I weighed this joker’s luck against my own.
“Can’t complain, Gus. Doing alright.”
He was too. But not off his own graft, I’d heard he was running for Boaby Stevens and say what you will about Shakey, he looks after his crew.
“You were always into anything and everything, Dan.”
He tipped back his head, laughed. I could see the goose-bumps forming on his exposed arms as he shivered in the street. “Fancy a pint?”
Now I thinned eyes. “What?”
“Jesus, it’s freezing out here, Gus, come on,” he looked about, squinted down the street and over to the Artisan pub. “I’ll shout you a bevvy.”
I was averse, call me old-fashioned, but I tend to avoid the company of idiots as a rule. I showed an open hand to the road, “Lead the way.” I mean, there’s principles and then there’s choking for a drink and being on the skint bones of your backside.
Danny walked into the road, palms up to halt the traffic, he got a hail of horns sent in his direction but it didn’t stop him beckoning me like the captain of an army advance. I let him weave his way through the stalled cars and clouds of tyre-smoke and pressed the button on the pedestrian crossing.
The Artisan was an old-school Edinburgh drinker. Set me in mind of days past, of Col’s Holy Wall. I winced at the memory of my wasted effort on running the place after his death; but you put a sopping-wet alkie in charge of a public house and you can expect no less. It was a miracle the place was still standing.
The pub was dominated by a circular bar, utilitarian tables and PVC chairs dotted around the outskirts. A poker-machine – what would once have been called a simple puggie – sparked and whirred to the left of us. I nodded to the taps, “Guinness ... and a wee birdie to chase it.”
Danny produced a wad thicker than the phone book and smiled a gold-toothed grin at the barmaid. As dour as a stroll out by the sewage overflows at Porty, she shot him a glower and clunked the glasses on the bar. “Bag of nuts as well, my girl...” said Danny.
Her look said he was lucky to keep the nuts he already had.
I took a table at the back of the pub, in the darkness of a shameless bulb that was clearly on the blink. Danny followed with a tray.
The creamy Guinness tasted like courage, spiked my veins and sent my heart ramping. Another gulp and I’d be flicking the switch in my head that said keep going, don’t stop. It was a hair-trigger and at its lightest when I had little or nothing going on in the wider world to distract me. “So, spill the beans, Danny.”
“This isn’t a social call.”
He struggled to open the bag of nuts, started to get agitated. He shuffled in his seat, then put the bag in his teeth and ripped open the pack. A shower of nuts descended on the table-top. “Aw, no.”
“Danny, man up, what’s this about?”
He looked suddenly weary, a cold line of sweat pustules erupted on his brow. “Truth be told, Gus, I’ve been looking for you.”
I didn’t like the sound of this. “If you’ve been looking for me, it’s not because you want to find me.”
“Has Shakey sent you?”
He turned in his seat, his buttocks squeaked on the PVC. “No. God no.”
I could tell he was lying, put the bead on him. “Danny, don’t lie to me.”
He dropped his gaze and fingered the rim of the table. “Well, not exactly.” He looked up, looked away. His voice flattened a little. He was a man on edge, at the end of his rope, I could see that now, I knew the territory. “What I mean is, well, y’know I work for Shakey and so I suppose in a way everything comes back to him, but this is something I thought out all for myself.”
I liked the sound of that even less. I fired down the Grouse. “I’m not with you. Spit it out, Danny.”
“I have a job for you.”
I was skint. Bored as it gets and verging seriously close to a skite. But a long way from taking work from gangsters or their shady acolytes. “Forget it.”
“No . . . wait, hear me out.”
I’d fallen foul of Shakey once before, he had me driven out to the wilds of Midlothian and strung up. “I’d need my head tested to get involved with that bloody lunatic. No way.”
I picked up my pint, started to gulp the Guinness and rise at the same time. I had no words to say to him, but if there were any queuing in my mind they were simply: “Forget it.”
Danny seemed to intuit my next move was the door. He got up and stepped in front of me, his tight Farah trousers looked close to splitting as he bent down for his Racing Post. Inside the paper was a grey-to-white envelope, it was held together by an elastic band, a necessity since the contents were spilling out as he flashed them under my nose.
“What’s this?” I said, lowering my pint.
“Three grand,’ he dipped his head and leaned forward, “It’s all in used twenties.”
I don’t know who Danny thought he was dealing with but I set him straight. “Well that’s handy, wouldn’t want to be accused of money laundering, transferring it to Switzerland.” I shook my head and walked past him. I was at elbows with the poker-machine when he grabbed my shoulder and spun me round.
He grabbed my sleeve, tugged tight. “You don’t understand.”
“I understand fine. And it’s still a no.” I put my hand on his and tried to unclasp his fingers but he clung for grim life – it was the strongest sense yet I’d caught of his sheer desperation.
“It’s Barry...” he said. His voice so low it seemed whispered into my ear like a secret.
“Barry Fulton?” He was the only common ground we shared of any significance and he knew this.
Danny nodded. His grip still held firm. I lowered my hand and stared into his concerned eyes.
He wet his thin grey lips, “Not anymore.”
“What? When did he get out?” Danny unclenched his fist and let his hand fall to his side. “Two days ago.” He raised the envelope stuffed with cash again and pressed it into my chest, “I knew you’d be interested, Gus.”
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.