Christopher Galt Novels






EXTRACT


DEAD MEN AND BROKEN HEARTS
by Craig Russell


Chapter One

'Who, where or what is "Tanglewood"?'

It was a simple question and, given the circumstances, an entirely reasonable and necessary one. Neither I nor my soon-to-be-client were filled with dread at my utterance of those six innocent words.

The thing is, though, we should have been.

Nineteen Fifty-six, the year that was winding up, may have been a bad year for the British Empire, but had, for me, been a good one business-wise. Not as lucrative as some of its predecessors, admittedly, but for the first time in years the buck I was turning was completely honest. It had been a full thirteen months since I had done any work for any one of the Three Kings, Glasgow Underworld's answer to Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, and I hadn't gotten into any real tangles.

The last tangle, however, had ended in a way that could have had me stretching a length of hangman's hemp. An experience like that increased the appeal of the straight and narrow.

Since then, I had decided to keep a profile that was as legitimate as it was low. Most of the work I now did was gathering evidence for divorce cases, security work, or snooping about for companies or lawyers. Divorce in 1950s Scotland was a protracted, painful and Rhadamanthine process; meaning it offered a great opportunity for turning a profit. I had taken help on full time: Archie McClelland, the ex-City of Glasgow Police beat man, who did most of the court work for me. Courtrooms made me nervous, especially when some smart-ass lawyer started to call into question my credentials as a witness. Some things don't bear a great deal of scrutiny. My past was definitely one of them.

The most important thing was that it had been quite a while since I'd found myself wrestling with a thug, looking down a gun barrel or fending off some Teddy Boy armed with a tyre lever, knuckleduster or switchblade. That was one thing I could say about divorce cases: bursting in on unfaithful husbands in flagrante with their secretaries meant that the only weapons you tended to find being waved in your direction pretty rapidly lost their ability to bruise.

'I don't know,' Pamela Ellis said in answer to my question. 'I don't even know if Tanglewood is a who, a where, or a what.'

'But you overheard him say it, so you must have heard it in the context of a sentence, something to give us a clue.'

'All I heard Andrew say was the word "Tanglewood". He was on the telephone and I heard him say "Got it. Tanglewood." Then the person at the other end of the line must have been speaking - for quite a time - and then Andrew just said "okay" and hung up the receiver.'

'And then he went out?'

'Then he went out. He left a note on the hall table, by the telephone, saying he had been called out to a customer and he wouldn't be back until very late, and that he would get something to eat while he was out.'

'And you were where?'

'In the lounge,' she said. They had lounges in Bearsden. Not parlours or living rooms; lounges. 'I had come back early and he didn't know I was in the house. He came in through the front door, made the call on the hall telephone, then left again.'

I leaned back in my chair. Pamela Ellis was a woman loitering uncertainly on the threshold of middle age, as if undecided whether she should simply surrender to the thickening of waist and hip and answer the call of tweed and stout shoes. It was clear that she had once been pretty, and was still a handsome woman, but there was a weariness that seemed to hang about her. She had called into my third-floor office in Gordon Street without having first made an appointment. It was the kind of thing that I decided I should discourage by telling my secretary to send away anyone who turned up without an appointment. But I'd have to start by hiring a secretary.

'And he came back when?'

'Late. I stayed up for him and he didn't get back till eleven. He'd been gone for over five hours.'

'And how was he with you when he came back?'

'Fine. Well, you wouldn't expect him to be anything else.'

'And you were fine with him?'

'I tried to be as normal as possible. You know, as if I didn't suspect anything.'

'We don't know yet that there is anything to suspect. Did he offer any further explanation for where he had been?'

'He said it had had something to do with work. Someone needing an estimate. That's what he's been saying about all the times he disappears: that it's to do with work.'

'You do know, Mrs Ellis, that there is every chance that it is all exactly as innocent as that?'

'I know. I want to believe that… and it really could be business. It's just that he's been so strange lately. Usually, when he gets home from work, he just relaxes. Sits and chats with me. I mean, demolition isn't the kind of business you do out of office hours. The customers Andrew usually deals with are councils or building firms needing a site cleared. And he has salesmen to deal with most of that side of things anyway. But it's not just him going out in the evening at short notice that's worrying me: it's the way he is when he's at home, too; the way he's withdrawn into himself. When he isn't out, he's so quiet. Sometimes he just sits for an hour, staring at the fire and saying nothing. It's just not like him. He has this shed, you see, in the garden. He used to spend hours there, tinkering with stuff. If ever I go into it to borrow something, I always forget to lock the shed behind me. Andrew is always giving me rows about that, but now he's hardly in there. Just sits moping by the fire. The other thing is that I can't find any notes.'

'Notes?'

'Andrew is incredibly organized. Actually, that's not true… he's terribly disorganized and forgetful, so he writes everything down. Makes notes about everything: every meeting, every new client's name, every appointment time or figure quoted. He uses notebooks mainly, but I'm always finding notes on scraps of paper. You see, that's the thing… there's nothing about these meetings and there's never been any note referring to "Tanglewood". I'm telling you, Mr Lennox, the fact that he is making such an effort not to put anything down is suspicious in its own right.'

'When he goes out, is it always for five or six hours?'

'Not always. Sometimes he's only gone an hour. Other times it's five hours. It never seems to be anything in between. There is one odd thing, though, about the longer disappearances…'

'Oh?'

'He takes a pair of heavy boots with him. I mean, he often takes wellington boots with him if he's visiting a site, but not his heavy boots.'

I nodded, taking it all in. 'Is there anything that you can think of that might be bothering him?' I asked. 'Preying on his mind?'

'No, nothing that I can think of. He's annoyed about all of this carry-on in Hungary at the moment. He listens to the news and it seems to make him worse, but there's something more than that going on in his head.'

'I think it's safe to say that annoyance at current affairs doesn't explain his behaviour being quite so odd,' I said.

'No. It doesn't. Nothing does.'

'So that's why you suspect it could be another woman?'

She shrugged. 'I just don't know. I can't think what else it could be.'

'Listen, Mrs Ellis… far be it from me to try to talk you out of giving me work, but before you do hire me, you've got to think about where this may lead you. Let's say your husband is carrying on an affair with another woman and we manage to prove that… what then? Do you want to divorce your husband if we prove he's been unfaithful? It's a messy, unpleasant business and there are your children to think about.'

'You can take it to a divorce case?' she asked, perplexed. She clearly had not thought the process through to its natural conclusion.

'I can recommend a lawyer and I - or at least my associate, Mr Archibald McClelland - can appear in court to provide evidence of infidelity, should we find it. My point is that it is a huge step to take - and a difficult one. Sometimes, I'm afraid to say, ignorance really can be bliss. If you want to walk away from this now, I would fully understand.'

I always gave clients this opportunity to consider their options. Of all of those options, divorce was the toughest and messiest one. Divorce in Britain generally was a difficult and sordid affair, and particularly so in staunchly Presbyterian Scotland. At the end of the war, the divorce rate had rocketed, reaching an all-time record in Forty-seven. It was all the sad result of men coming back broken or bitter or altered and dropped straight back into a society that no longer made much sense to them. Sometimes there would be evidence - often living, breathing, nappy-wearing evidence - of a wife's infidelity.

Ten years after the war was over, it was still claiming casualties, but casualties of battles fought in the divorce courts. I had a theory about it all - as I tended to have about most things. The Great Lennox Theory of Divorce Law was that the government and the law lords went out of their way not to modernize divorce laws that were woefully in need of reform; and the reason for their reluctance to make the process easier was some deep fear that the very fabric of British society was in danger of coming apart. They should have come to Glasgow, I had often thought, to see how threadbare and tattered that fabric was at the best of times.

Pamela Ellis thought about what I had said for a moment, frowning. Then, decisively, she said, 'No. No, Mr Lennox, I need to know. I don't know what I'll do if you find anything - maybe I'll just confront him about it. Or maybe I'll not say anything. But at least I'll know. At least I'll have found out for sure.'

I smiled. 'That's your decision, Mrs Ellis. Can you tell me some more about your husband, please? Personal history, habits… anything that might help me build a picture of Andrew Ellis.'

'Oh, I don't know… Andrew's an ordinary kind of man, really. Someone I've always felt, well, comfortable with. I mean, that's partly why I find his behaviour of late so disturbing. It's so unlike him to be anything other than ordinary. He doesn't smoke, doesn't drink much… he's not much of a one for the pub. Work is everything to him. That and his home life…' She choked on the last part and clearly struggled to keep a lid on her emotions. But she managed: ten years of living in Scotland had shown me the Scots were world champions at keeping a lid on emotions.

'Do you have any children?'

She shook her head. 'We tried, but we can't.'

'What about work?' I asked. 'How did Mr Ellis get into the demolition business?'

'He was in the RAOC and then the Royal Engineers during the war. Bomb disposal to start with then demolition. Andrew always said that he spent half his time stopping things blowing up and then the other half making them blow up.'

'Officer?'

'NCO. He was a volunteer. He had been exempt from the call-up, but he wanted to serve so he volunteered.'

'Because he was in a reserved occupation?' I asked. A lot of Glaswegians had dodged the bullet of war-time conscription, sometimes more than metaphorically, because they worked in essential industries such as the shipyards or munitions.

'No. No it wasn't that. Andrew had to go through all of these panels and interviews when it came out about his family background.'

'I'm sorry, what do you mean, "family background"?'

'Andrew's parents were Hungarian,' she explained. 'They changed their name to Ellis from Elès. They came over after the Great War. That's why he was so upset about all of this trouble in Hungary. Andrew has never thought of himself as anything other than a Glaswegian, a Scot. But when he volunteered to serve his country, he suddenly found himself being treated as a foreigner. Worse than that, they treated him as a potential enemy alien because Hungary was an Axis power.'

'But he got in.'

'Only by volunteering to train for bomb disposal. It was dangerous work and there was a shortage of volunteers.'

'I can imagine…' I said. I had myself had an encounter with a German grenade that had been some way distant and with one of my men between me and it. The long-term result of this confrontation had been the faint web of pale scars on my right cheek, still visible every morning in the shaving mirror. The bomb boys got a lot more up-close and intimate with munitions than I had been and it took a special kind of cool. Or stupidity. 'And after the war he set up business using the skills he'd learned?' I asked.

'After he was demobbed, Andrew went to work for Hall's Demolitions. That's where I met him. I worked in the office, you see. He went straight in as an ordnance handler because of his war experience and was team boss in no time. But then, when old man Hall died, Andrew couldn't work with his son, so he went out on his own.'

'And you went with him?'

'I did all the paperwork when the business was small. I left when the business became established and we took on staff.'

'I'm sorry, Mrs Ellis, but I have to ask: has your husband had any affairs in the past, or behaved with women in a way that has caused you concern?'

'Never.'

'So why now?'

'Like I told you, he's changed. He's different… preoccupied, I suppose, like there's something weighing on his mind. Almost like he's haunted.'

I nodded. Haunted was a look that a lot of men who'd been in the war had. But it didn't tend to be something that came on suddenly a decade later, like delayed shock.

'Could he be worried about the business?'

She shook her head. 'No, business has been good. Andrew's got a lot of contracts from the Corporation. You know, clearing slums for new flats.'

'I guess it's a boom time for that…' I said and grinned. She either didn't get the gag or chose not to, which I couldn't blame her for - it was a pretty lame gag. But I did see that there would be a lot of demolition work available: Glasgow Corporation were in the process of blasting more Glaswegian real estate out of existence than the Luftwaffe had managed. The Future, apparently, was High-Rise. Hundreds of Glaswegian families now stood staring in slack-jawed amazement at toilets that they didn't need to go outside to use. And that they didn't need to share with five other families.

'Could he be worried about something else? You don't think there could be some kind of medical concern that he's not telling you about?'

'I doubt it. Andrew's one of the healthiest people I know.'

'I see,' I said, and tried to work out how relative that statement was in Glasgow. I had grown to have a deep affection for Glaswegians, but remained confused by their lemming-like attitude to diet, cigarettes and booze. I was witness to a million slow-motion suicides by lard. 'Well, I suggest that we keep tabs on your husband for a while, Mrs Ellis. May I 'phone you at home to keep you informed?'

She scribbled down a number with a tiny green pencil in a tiny green notebook, tore out a page and passed it to me. 'Please, Mr Lennox, make sure you only call when Andrew is at work.'

'Of course. I will need a reasonably up-to-date-'

She anticipated my request by taking a photograph from her handbag and handing it to me. The dark-haired man in the picture had pale-coloured eyes, a strong jaw and the type of regular, well-proportioned features that should have made him handsome but instead somehow made him anonymous. Bland, almost. His look was not typical for Glasgow, but he was not the handlebar-moustachioed Magyar I had started to imagine. The main impression I got from the photograph was that this was the kind of face most people would take as that of a pleasant, honest man. But I had learned not to take honesty at face value.

Thanking her for the picture, I then questioned her further about her husband's routine: the usual times he came home or went out, and so on. I took down the addresses of his business premises, his golf club, the number of his car. I dressed up with professional procedure the patent impertinence of snooping into another human being's private life.

When we were finished I thanked Mrs Ellis and she thanked me and I walked her out into the stairwell. She thanked me once more and said goodbye. As she did so she failed to hide the resentment and hatred in her eyes. At the end of it all, I was the man who, with a single bright, hard truth, would bring her marriage to an end.

Divorce work.

Sometimes I missed the plain honesty of gangsters, thugs and back-alley dealings.


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all material © Craig Russell