Simon Walsh was one of Carl’s gang. I reckon he must’ve been born partially arrogant because by the time he’s nine it’s fully formed. Twenty years later he’s overflowing with it. He’s lying in a bath of arrogance and watching it flop over the sides and onto the floor. There isn’t enough room for all his arrogance. He says he’s self-confident, talented and ambitious. I say he’s a smug, sanctimonious shit but maybe I’m just bitter. He’s a journalist, like me, only he works on the Regional Newspaper and he’s ambitious and I work on the local, weekly free sheet and I’m not. He thinks that makes him better than me and maybe I think so too. Only, he doesn’t get it that I like my paper. I like the local news, the local sports, births, marriages, deaths – hell, even the adverts - I like everything. It makes me happy.
Maybe one day I’ll grow ambition, like Simon, but not yet.
What makes Simon happy is when he sells freelance stuff. He had a couple of articles taken up by Nationals, which lit up his rosy cheeks for weeks. They’re not the sort of papers my mum and dad would buy. They’re the sort whose readers suck their thumbs and write with crayons. But the money’s good.
Simon’s always looking for something gritty and sensational.
Man, he must think he’s just opened his eyes on the best day of his life.
To begin with, Tyrone has been released from prison. Simon will be bringing out the Daily Mail voice he uses when he wants to write a self-righteous piece full of fear and outrage.
‘-Tyrone Keech should have been locked away forever. Instead he’s back on the streets of his native town. No doubt he conned some liberal, leftist do-gooder into believing he’s a reformed character, a victim of a bad up-bringing, a poor unfortunate who just needs a second chance...’
Then there’s the attack on Thomas Oldfield and the burglary.
‘Local businessman, Thomas Oldfield went to bed at ten thirty as usual. By morning he was clinging to life in intensive care, his distraught family at his bedside. He was attacked in his own home, beaten savagely by an intruder....’
You wait for weeks for a decent headline then two come along at once.
He’ll hint at links between the events. Simon’s pretty adept at hinting and Tyrone and violence go together like fish and chips. He can place the two articles next to each other on the front page (continued on page six) and let people draw their own conclusions. He’ll know that’s not enough to attract the interest of a daily – not yet. He needs a few facts, he needs to join a few dots, then he’ll be in the money. If he can work Wayne into the picture, he’ll really have something.
Criminal brothers on the rampage, past violence, present violence and the threat of future violence, decent, law abiding people under siege - and fear, lots of fear. He just needs a few facts to draw it together. He needs to forge links, get creative.
Yeah, that’s some story.
I sigh. Maybe I’d better get out there too, do a bit of digging. Shit, even I can feel the pull of a story like this. Maybe I’ll find something to help Wayne or Tina. You’ve got to try, right?
Only, I’ve got my hands full, more articles to write than I can shake an octopus at. I didn’t get much done yesterday, just a few hours in the afternoon, what with Tina and Mrs Oldfield and the hospital so I’m already way behind.
I get to the office at eight and unlock. I like getting there early. There’s time for a coffee and time to think and everything’s quiet. The others drift in over the next hour, there’s a leisurely exchange of words, a bit of social chat then we get down to work. Yeah, it’s good.
Only today I’ve a lot to do and there’s barely time to boil the kettle. The Oldfield story will be the lead, that’s obvious, but I’ll need to include Tyrone’s release somewhere – probably page two, just a reprise of the story, nothing sensational. Then there’s the local stuff, a plague of petty crime, windows smashed, cars vandalised, graffiti and malicious damage, worth an inside page. Then local charity dos and the court reports, a traffic warden retiring after forty years glorious service, a local councillor cutting a ribbon somewhere, another sitting in something or on something or donning a pot hat to visit a factory making components for wind turbines. I can write that stuff with a pencil inserted in my rectum so there’s no need to draft and redraft it but after yesterday there’s a lot of it. I can leave the sport and some of the other stuff to Tim and Alice, my juniors.
Normally I enjoy all this but today I want to be out. Maybe there’s a bit of Simon in me, after all?
‘Fuck that,’ I say aloud and look round to see if anyone heard. No-one did.
Still, after a few hours it’s done or delegated and when I look at my watch it’s almost lunchtime, a good time to meet a couple of contacts, maybe get the inside track on something I can use. I pause then pick up my phone.
‘Do you fancy lunch and a couple of beers?’ I ask. Slattery listens then asks the question he always asks.
‘Are the drinks on you?’
‘Yes, of course they’re on me,’ I tell him. ‘Aren’t they always? What do you say to one o’clock at the Wheatsheaf?’
Before I go to the Wheatsheaf I make another call, Tommy Sands, another primary school enemy, one of Carl’s gang. Tommy has done alright for himself. He’s an electrician with his own one-man business. He’s happy to tick along, get a few jobs here and there, make ends meet. He does some work for Oldfield, contract work on building projects, that kind of thing. Oldfield puts other business his way too, for a mark-up. Ten percent is his usual charge for directing customers to Tommy.
Tommy has other interests too, not strictly legal, handling stolen good, that sort of thing. I think maybe he’ll know something about the robbery at the Oldfields or about Tyrone. It’s worth a try. Tommy knows a lot of people, not all of them respectable. If there’s any gossip or whispers, Tommy will have heard.
When I find him, Tommy is sitting in his van eating sandwiches. He has a cup of tea from a flask perched on the dashboard and he’s listening to the radio – Radio 2. I open the door and looks inside then I shuffle some greasy looking components from the passenger seat and slide in.
‘Do you never think of cleaning this van?’
Tommy munches a sandwich. ‘No,’ he says; a man of few words. He thinks for a moment then adds, ‘If I’d known you were coming I’d have had it valeted.’
Tommy is a big man, broad and heavy. Even his brows and eyelids are heavy. He doesn’t look like a man much troubled by philosophical thought. If voting required more than a cross he wouldn’t bother.
‘What do you want?’
‘Have you heard anything about the Oldfield robbery?’
‘There’s nothing dodgy about the Oldfields.’
‘That’s not what I asked.’
Tommy shrugs and picks up his paper. ‘They’re as clean as an unused bog roll. Had any tips for Kempton?’
’Not A Clue, in the 2.30.’
Tommy scans the racing page. ‘There’s no such horse.’
‘Since when did I know anything about horses, Tommy?’ I snap. ‘Come on, there must be something you can tell me.’
Tommy shakes his head. ‘Tina Oldfield was dating Alasdair Riley. He didn’t last long, though. She’s moved on.’
‘I know about that.’
‘She’s dating Wayne Keech.’
‘I know that too.’
‘So maybe…’ he says. He raises his hands and widens them to contain a headline, “‘Brother of Tyrone Keech Charged with Murder.’”
‘He’s not dead.’
‘I thought he put business your way.’
‘At a price; he’s a tight-fisted git and a fucking perfectionist – one of those middle-class, golf club, Christian types. You know the sort. He thinks he’s a missionary.’
‘Heard anything about Tyrone Keech?’
It’s obvious I’m wasting my time so I arrange a game of pool and ask Tommy to keep his ears open.
I’m about to leave when he says, ‘You’re the second fucker to come asking questions today.’
‘Oh yeah? Who’s the first?’
‘I should’ve fucking known.’
I brush the dirt off my trousers and head for the Wheatsheaf where I arrive with minutes to spare. Slattery is already there, hunched over the bar talking to some skinny girl in a short skirt. She’s sporting a top that looks as if it’s made from a single thread wound not too tightly. She’s after the lunch time trade.
Slattery looks up as I enter and downs his beer.
‘Mine’s a pint. What’s yours Cindy?’
Cindy looks me up and down and assesses with an experienced eye that I’m worth a double gin. Having got her gin, she decides it’s time to move on to richer pickings further along the bar.
‘Bye, sweetie,’ Slattery says and gives her buttocks a squeeze as she passes him.
‘See you later, maybe,’ she says.
‘You can believe it,’ he grins.
‘Let’s get a table,’ I say and we sit down below an opaque window which hides us from the street. I risk a half smile. These are the seats occupied a few weeks ago by the waist-coated guy who riled Wayne. At the end of the bar there’s the same tattooed Daily Mail reader leaning on his elbows; his heavy stubble looks as if it spent the last year collecting grime. He eyes us carefully and then folds his paper and looks even more closely, as if he’s rescuing a memory from the swamp of distant times. A smile flickers, revealing carnivorous teeth. It isn’t a pleasant smile and the teeth are not an attractive feature. It requires little in the way of imagination to picture him drooling over raw meat. He’s about to walk across when he seems to think better of it. Perhaps he knows Slattery professionally. No point in drawing attention.
‘What do you want?’ Slattery asks in a tone that isn’t too friendly.
‘Do I have to want something to buy an old friend a drink?’ It’s clear I do, so I don’t wait for an answer. ‘Have you any news on the Oldfield case?’
‘We’re pursuing enquiries and hope to be pressing charges soon,’ Slattery adopts the formal tone of his profession. It sounds like irony. There’s no point giving information when he might get a price for it. He throws back his head and empties his glass then he nods across at the barman.
‘I’m off work today,’ he says. ‘I’ve just finished a double shift.’
I’m not easily put off so I ask again. ‘Have you got anything? I mean, now you can’t hold Wayne for the job?’
‘He’s in the clear for the moment, but only because Tina Oldfield and a lying son of a bitch journalist vouched for him over the Riley break-in. I hear he’s dating Tina too. That makes me very fucking suspicious.’
‘You don’t believe us?’ I feign shock and surprise and try to sound hurt.
‘Playing sex games…’ he mutters.
Slattery tells me what he knows, which isn’t much and what he thinks, which isn’t much either. He figures that sooner or later something will turn up which puts Wayne in the frame for the burglary and GBH.
‘Fucker did it,’ he says.
‘He wouldn’t,’ I tell him, ‘not to Tina or her family. The poor sod’s in love.’
‘His brother’s back.’
‘That doesn’t change anything; he hasn’t spoken to Tyrone for years, not since…’
‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘but there’s something going on here. I can smell it, and I have an acute sense of smell where criminals are concerned. I could give a bloodhound a run for its money.’
Slattery drinks his beer and stands up to take his leave but then he leans over and whispers in my ear. I resist the urge to flinch from the odour of stale beer and the proximity of bloodshot eyes.
‘You’re not the first journalist to come asking questions,’ he says.
‘Don’t tell me – Simon Walsh.’
‘I get the feeling he’s not as trusting as you. He thinks there’s a story. Maybe you’d better watch out for his next headline.’
My stomach lurches towards the centre of the earth.
‘What do you mean?’
Slattery laughs then drains his glass and heads across the bar.
‘Wait and see,’ he says.
A gust of cold air stirs the smell of wood polish and aftershave as the door closes behind him. The same gust of air seems to lift the Daily Mail reader from his stool. It blows him towards my table where he pulls a chair and flops down opposite me.
‘It’s you isn’t it?’ he says.
‘I hope so,’ I reply. ‘Otherwise I could be done for identity fraud.’
‘No, but it is, isn’t it?’
‘I tell you what,’ I rein in a desire to apply level nine sarcasm. ‘You tell me who you think I am and I’ll say yes or no. What do you think?’
‘Phil – you’re my old mate Phil Tyler – from school.’
I look at him closely. Then it dawns. ‘Jesus Christ,’ I mutter.
My new companion chuckles and then laughs. ‘Carl Jeffreys,’ he says. ‘You didn’t recognise me, did you?’
I want to tell him that his own mother would have difficulty recognising him. He’s fallen on hard times from one hell of a height and hit a few projections on the way down.
‘You’re looking...’ I begin, but there’s not much else to add.
‘What are you doing nowadays?’
‘Not much. I had a bit of bad luck.’
I remember the bad luck because I wrote about it in the court news - drunk and disorderly, assault, petty theft, nothing you couldn’t have predicted. After he left school, he had a job in a shop run by a Quaker family but eventually even their patience was tested to the limit. He was sacked for a variety of misdemeanours the least of which involved turning up drunk or not turning up at all, swearing at customers and threatening behaviour. Shortly after his dismissal the windows of the shop got smashed. Carl said he was at the cinema with three friends but two malicious surveillance cameras told a different story.
‘You work for the paper, don’t you?’
I smile. Fame has its consequences.
‘How much do you pay for news?’
‘It depends on the news.’
‘Tyrone is back.’
‘That’s old news.’
‘He’s up to something.’
‘Yeah, something big; I’ve heard whispers.’
‘I’d need more than whispers. Tell me he’s behind the burglary at the Oldfields and we might do business.’
‘It’s bigger than that. Did you know he’s been seen in the Moonlight Bar?’
’There’s no law against it. I’ve been seen in the Moonlight Bar.’
‘He’s working for George Mackie.’
I look up. That is interesting but I’m not going to tell Carl that. Mackie is the nearest thing we have to a gangster in this town. They say he has connections though who they are I’m not sure.
‘So, they’re up to something, and it involves brother Wayne.’
Carl’s eyes darken. It’s clear he’s got no fond memories of Wayne. Maybe he’s remembering what happened to Chloe. Yeah, maybe it’s that; or maybe it’s just habit.
‘Go on,’ I say. ‘How’s Wayne involved?’
‘He’s good for the burglary.’
‘Can you prove it?’
I change the subject for a moment. He’s a fish on a hook so I play him for a while.
‘Wayne doesn’t want anything to do with Tyrone, not after Stevie.’
‘That’s fucking years ago, water under the bridge. I reckon they’ve teamed up, “the Keech Brothers.”’
I reckon not, so I don’t respond.
‘See what you can find out about Tyrone and George Mackie and maybe there’ll be a few quid in it for you.’
‘I’ll need a bit of cash on account, for expenses, like.’ His eyes are eager but experience has taught me to wait.
I don’t have to wait long.
‘You were here the other week with Wayne, weren’t you? You didn’t recognise me. Wayne got in a fight and was thrown out by the landlord.’
‘Wayne’s been thrown out of a lot of bars; sometimes I’m there, sometimes not. That’s not news. Have you nothing else for me?’
‘There are others who’d think it was news.’
‘I could call Simon Walsh, tell him what I know.’
‘You mean he hasn’t been here already? Well, that makes a fucking change.’
‘Wayne starts going out with Tina Oldfield and then her house gets burgled. That’s a big, fucking coincidence.’
‘He has an alibi. The police let him go.’
Carl plays his ace prematurely.
‘It’s a lie. I know it’s a lie and I can prove it.’
I lean forward, keeping my voice calm.
‘Go on, how do you know it’s a lie?’
‘The night when the Oldfield house was burgled, I saw him. He was running down the street near her house. He looked like he’d seen a ghost.’
‘What were you doing there?’
Carl shrugs. ‘Walking the fucking dog; what do you care? He stole the keys from Riley, saw his chance.’
‘Tina gave him an alibi for that job.’
‘No shit?’ he whistles. ‘She always was soft on him.’
‘So did I.’
‘Then you know it’s a lie.’
I open my wallet and pull out some notes. ‘It wasn’t Wayne who did the burglaries, but I’d be interested to know who did. Here’s fifty on account.’ I slide a card from my wallet and push it across the table. ‘Phone me when you’ve got something.’
He scoops up the notes like a starving man lifts a sandwich.
‘Just one thing, Carl…’
‘This is between you and me, not you, me and Simon Walsh.’
‘Yeah, sure, just you and me; you can trust me.’
I have a sinking feeling. I reckon I can trust him as far as the nearest landline.