Simon Walsh isn’t in the newspaper office when I call. There’s just a middle-aged woman with forgettable glasses and a welcoming smile, who takes adverts and deals with callers. Behind her the press room is buzzing with inactivity.
‘He’ll be back in a couple of hours,’ she says. ‘Do you want to leave your name?’
I don’t. After his recent headline, my name might set alarm bells ringing and arouse fear of violent retribution. I say I’ll call back.
‘Can I ask what it’s about?’
You can ask, I think. But then I say, ‘Tell him it’s about Wayne Keech and his brother.’
Evidently, she remembers the name because her face freezes and her teeth seem momentarily set like concrete in her mouth. Then she relaxes and says, ‘I’ll let him know,’ and she smiles again as I leave.
I think maybe I’ll walk down to the precinct and get a coffee, but I’ve not gone many yards when I get this strange feeling that I’m being watched. It’s not a feeling I welcome under the present circumstances. My thoughts slip immediately to Denny, Tyrone and a knife. I turn and look around but the street is quite busy and everyone seems to be moving except me. I can’t see anyone suspicious but then, what’s suspicious in a crowd of people? You’d need to be wearing a billboard or a red nose and a funny hat to stand out in that lot.
Nonetheless, I can’t shake off the feeling. I cast sideways glances and stop at shop windows and try to watch reflections like I’ve seen on TV, only it doesn’t work and I just feel foolish.
I grab a window seat in Maggie’s Cafe and order a coffee and a ham roll. It’s surprising how all this conspiracy stuff makes you hungry. Then I wait to see if anyone follows me, a man with a billboard or a red nose and funny hat, maybe. But there’s no-one conspicuous outside and it’s five minutes before the door opens. It’s just a silver haired, elderly guy with a penchant for floral colours, who sits across from me. He calls to the girl behind the counter in a loud, self-confident voice - obviously a regular.
I glance at him. There’s something vaguely familiar, like he’s someone I didn’t know well years ago, someone whose name I once couldn’t remember. Another customer of a similar age but a greyer take on fashion stands up and walks across. He carries a tea cup in one hand and, with the other, pats the seated customer on the shoulder.
‘Well, councillor,’ he says, ‘do you mind if I join you?’
Of course; It’s councillor somebody-something. Greenhalgh, was it? He used to be in the papers all the time, way back. He was pretty old then, when I was a child, but he kept going until well past his sell-by date. I don’t think he retired; I think he was prized out with one of those tools you use to remove stones from a horse’s hoof. You used to get them on old penknives, my dad said.
‘Eric Greenhalgh,’ I say to myself and, having recalled the required information, I prepare to pack it away in my recycle bin; then I hear a familiar name.
‘What do you think about this Oldfield business?’
Greenhalgh shakes his head slowly.
‘He’s been a lucky man all his life. It looks like his luck just ran out.’
‘Weren’t you and him cronies in the old days?’
’I’m not sure I like the word ‘cronies,’ not since Blair and Brown. We were friends for a time, I suppose.’
The other man seems to understand the reticent tone, which is more than I do.
‘He liked to sail close to the wind, back in the day,’ he comments.
‘They were different times, different standards; you couldn’t get away today with half that went on then. But it worked, in its own way. Things got done.’
‘He did well for himself, it has to be said.’
‘Yes.’ I hear that tone again, the one that suggests Greenhalgh knows a lot more than he’s willing to say, and that most of it isn’t good. ‘He put the past behind him.’
‘Best place for it.’
I start to see Thomas Oldfield in a different light and I realise I’ve never really looked at him before. He’s just Tina’s father, a big, successful, self-made businessman, short tempered and brusque, a bit scary when you’re little and even scarier when you’re older and around Tina. He looks at you with more distrust than a normal face ought to be allowed to carry, like you’re about to pollute the air she breathes. Tina has total possession of his one soft spot. Everything else is stony ground.
Suddenly I’m asking myself questions like where did he get all his money and what’s this past which Greenhalgh says he’s put behind him and how does it tie in with JAYDEE and George Mackie? I’m also suddenly scared that excavating the past might turn up more than a few harmless artefacts. There may be bodies buried down there. I start to think maybe I need to find out, do a bit of careful digging, so we’re prepared for what Simon might discover. When Simon Walsh starts digging, it’s like excavating with a mechanical shovel. I start thinking of the harm he might do Tina and Mrs Oldfield and Wayne. The sooner I get him on-side the better.
Then I remind myself this is just two old men talking about the past. Maybe there were a few shady deals, a few backhanders to secure a contract. I know enough about the old days to understand that deals were often concluded with a brown envelope stuffed with cash pushed through a letterbox at midnight. My dad is full of stories.
The two men have moved onto other topics and the cafe is getting busier so I can’t hear any more. I finish my coffee and sandwich and check my watch. I’ll drop in the office for an hour and offload some work on Tim. He won’t mind; he’s keen.By the time I get back to the offices of The Evening Post, Simon might be back.
He is. As I push open the door, I see him in the office. The receptionist looks startled, as if she’s been warned I might be trouble. I see her glance towards the phone. Her hand twitches like a cowboy in a movie, preparing to draw. She smiles but the eyes are measuring me.
One false move, hombre...
Simon stands up and walks across, all friendly and chatty, as if by talking he can draw the poison he senses between us. ‘Hello, Phil,’ he beams, ‘Coffee? Would you do the honours, Mae?’ Mae takes her cue from him and disappears into a small room adjacent to the main office. I hear the clatter of cups and the hiss of a boiling kettle. ‘Come on in, Phil. Take a seat.’
No mention of the sex games threesome then?
I decide to follow suit and keep quiet. No point giving him the satisfaction. Rise above it, I tell myself, for now.
Over coffee I get straight to the point.
‘Wayne didn’t burgle Alasdair Riley or the Oldfields, you know.’ His face is impassive, not even raised eyebrows. He waits. ‘There’s something going on and it involves George Mackie and Tyrone. I don’t know what it’s about but we both know there’s a big story out there.’
His eyes flicker. But that’s all.
‘Look, Simon, I’ve got some information I’m willing to share, but I don’t want Tina or her mother hurt by any of this. I need your word on that.’
I know, even as I speak, that it’s like asking a vulture to give up carrion for Lent.
‘I doubt you’ve got anything to tell me that I haven’t already heard,’ he says.
‘I’ve got the inside track on Wayne and the Oldfields. They’ll never talk to you but they will to me,’ I tell him.
‘I have other sources. The Oldfields will speak to me when they have to,’ he says.
I clench my fists. It’s like playing chess with a Grand Master. I’m more of a dominoes man, myself.
‘What if there was something in the safe,’ I tell him, sacrificing a queen, ‘something a lot of people want to get their hands on.’
He looks up, suddenly interested, but then the light fades from his eyes and he glances at his phone. If he’s got cards he’ll play them carefully.
‘I want something to tie Tyrone, Mackie, Wayne and the Oldfield burglary,’ he says. ‘Can you do that?’
‘Wayne’s not involved.’
‘What if I find he is?’
‘What about Mackie and Tyrone? Can you tie them in?’
‘I know Mackie is worried. He knows what was in the safe and he wants it.’
He checks his watch again.
‘I’ve got to go; appointment with the Chief Education Officer – school closures.’
‘I didn’t know about any school closures,’ I say.
He smiles and shakes his head.
‘Sources,’ he smiles.
‘You want to pool resources on this story or not?’ I ask. ‘If you don’t, there are plenty of others.’
He hesitates for a moment.
‘But you don’t write anything that’ll hurt the Oldfields. Okay?’
‘I’ll not go out of my way to hurt them.’
‘You’ll let me see anything you plan to publish and give Tina a right of reply before you go to print?’
I think I heard that on a film somewhere.
He smiles knowingly. ‘If the information’s good enough.’
‘Tina plans to sue you and the paper if you print anything else about her.’
‘Really? On what grounds?’
‘On the grounds that you’re a lying bastard out to cause trouble: if suing doesn’t work she says she’ll tear your balls off with her teeth.’
‘Just doing my job, Phil; you know the game. But if you give me useful information I’m willing to spare the small fry. You’re right, there’s a fucking big story here. Maybe we can work together. Like you say, you’ve got access to places I can’t go.’
I can’t resist a bitter smile. I can feel the cobra tightening round me.
‘We share everything, right? I don’t want any surprises and I don’t want my friends hurt.’
‘You’ll never make a journalist,’ he says.
I want to plant one on that polished, shiny face but I resist the temptation. I know he’s right. I’m cursed with an excess of compassion.
I take a deep breath and tell him pretty much the whole story as he jots a few notes. His questions are scalpel sharp and I start to feel as if I’m dealing with a real professional. I don’t even feel manipulated. I even tell him about the blackmail letter to Mrs Oldfield.
‘A good starting place might be Oldfield’s past history,’ he muses. ‘If this package is important to George Mackie it must be incriminating in some way. I’ll have to look into Oldfield’s early business dealings, see if there are links to Mackie.’
I nod. I don’t have any good feelings about this. I’d like to believe there’s nothing dodgy about Thomas Oldfield but I don’t know for sure. But what’s the alternative?
‘What makes you so sure Wayne didn’t break into the house?’ he asks. ‘A witness placed him at the scene.’
‘He told me and I believe him.’
The quizzical eyebrow is raised to double height.
‘When I was eight,’ Simon tells me, ‘Wayne promised there’d be no trouble if I went down to the precinct with him. I ended up in the police station.’
‘Me too; but he wouldn’t hurt Tina.’ Those cynical eyebrows are starting to really fucking irritate me. ‘Wayne is different from how you remember. He’s got honesty like some people get religion.’
‘He’s no different.’
’Maybe he was responsible for the burglary and the assault on Thomas Oldfield? But he’d have needed help from an insider, like Wayne.’
‘Or Alasdair Riley.’
’Tyrone’s capable of anything, you know that, and he’s working for George Mackie: but Wayne? No. Like I said, he wouldn’t do anything to hurt Tina.’
Simon looks up sharply. ‘Why doesn’t Mrs Oldfield go to the police? I mean, they’re equipped to deal with blackmail and they’re usually considered more efficient than an amateur journalist on a local rag. No offence.’
‘Fucker’, I snap, deep inside my head.
I explain it’s the threat to Tina that stops her. ‘She’s got a lot to deal with at the moment.’
‘The blackmailers are going to phone one day soon, and they’ll expect their money. What’s she going to do?’
How the fuck do I know?
‘She’ll pay it, just to buy time,’ I venture.
‘Any idea who might’ve sent the letter to Mrs O?’
‘It couldn’t have been Wayne,’ I tell him. ‘He’s banged up in a police cell.’
He stands up and holds out a hand. I guess it’s time to go.I shake the hand carefully, like I’m fending off something venomous. I can’t believe I’m giving away information to this guy; but he’s going to find out anyway. That’s what he does. Better he’s inside the tent pissing out, eh?
Only Simon pisses on everyone, all the time.Inside the tent, outside the tent, all over the tent, it makes no difference to Simon.
I’m left with is a feeling of doom and a single, fraying thread of hope. Maybe he’ll find the truth and maybe it’ll put Wayne in the clear and maybe that will put me in the clear and maybe Thomas Oldfield is as innocent as a baby deer.
It’s about there that I stop thinking. The thread of hope just snapped.
It’s time to leave.
Time is passing and I’m no nearer to the files.