Christopher Galt Novels


by Craig Russell

Some concepts are alien to the Glaswegian mind. Salad. Dentistry. Forgiveness.

Until the night Small Change MacFarlane died, I had no idea just how unforgiving Glasgow could be. My education in vindictiveness was about to be completed.

It was mid-heat wave hot and sticky and I had an even hotter and stickier date with Lorna MacFarlane the night her father was murdered. I had parked my Austin Atlantic up above the city on Glennifer Braes, from where you could see Glasgow stretched out below, dark and sullen in the muggy night; but, to be honest, we didn't take in much of the view. Looking back, it's ironic to think that two members of the MacFarlane family had been on the business end of a blunt instrument at roughly the same time.

Lorna was quite a bit above the usual Glasgow standard: she was pretty, with strawberry blonde hair and a knockout figure. Like most lowlifes made good, her bookie father was always striving for a touch of respectability and had sent Lorna to a fancy boarding school in Edinburgh. The aim had probably been to turn her into a proper little lady, but whatever languages were taught there, I had found out in the back of my Atlantic that when it came to French, Lorna was a natural linguist.

If I had to describe my relationship with Lorna at that time, the word shallow would fit best. Mind you, it was an adjective that could have been applied to almost all my relationships with women. Lorna and I were, however, particularly mutually undemanding. She was killing time until she landed the right type of husband material and me... well, I was just doing what I always did. If events hadn't taken the turn they had that night, I think we would have drifted apart without acrimony. But that night, up on Glennifer Braes, we had no idea what was ahead of us.

My ignorance was especially blissful. I had no idea that a blood debt was about to be extracted, or what a Baro or a bitchapen were. And if someone, on that humid, too-hot summer evening had mentioned the name John Largo to me, I would have assumed they were talking about a character in a Wild West movie. Which would have been apt, in a way: the West didn't get any wilder than Glasgow.

But John Largo was no cowboy. He was what the French would call an éminence gris. A shadow. A very dangerous shadow with a long reach.

After our back-seat tango, I drove Lorna home to Pollokshields. Glasgow had its own social geography, meaningless to anyone from outside the city but all-important to its minority of middle classes. Glasgow, by and large, was a classless sort of city where the only thing that counted for anything was how much money you had. The Glasgow accent was common across social boundaries; intelligibility or, more correctly, the comparative lack of unintelligibility, was the only indicator of status. The result was that social prestige tended to be determined by geography, or more subtle social indicators such as proximity to a toilet that flushed or whether your grandmother still lived in a slum.

When it came to the accounting of turf, Small Change had done well over the years, better than almost any other bookie in Glasgow, but he hadn't earned the kind of cash or respectability to spring him over the Clyde, out of the Southside and up the Glaswegian social ladder. The MacFarlane residence, therefore, lay in Pollokshields, on the Southside. The house itself was large, detached, and the usual unimaginatively sturdy, Scottish, Victorian sandstone villa in a street of near-identical unimaginatively sturdy, Scottish, Victorian sandstone villas, all following the usual Presbyterian imperative to temper prosperity with anonymity. In a search for some kind of distinction, almost all the houses in the street had names, not numbers, and when we reached Ardmore, there was a knot of black police Wolseleys blocking the drive.

That's usually my cue to see how far and how fast I can travel in the opposite direction, but Lorna started to panic and, parking on the street, I went with her up to the house. It was clear something deeply unpleasant would be waiting for us. It was: six-foot-six of tweed and oxblood brogues that went by the name of Detective Superintendent Willie McNab.

'What's going on?' I asked and McNab ignored me.

'Miss MacFarlane?' He spoke to Lorna solicitously and I was impressed at how convincing his human being act was. 'Could you come with me please?' He steered her into the lounge, first casting a 'and don't you fucking move' look over his shoulder at me.

I smiled. It was nice to be noticed.

I was left standing with the cop doing guard duty on the front door. He was a big lad, a Highlander, like ninety percent of the uniforms in the City of Glasgow Police. Highlanders were recruited for size not intellect and they were easy to bewilder with shiny beads or electricity: it only took me a couple of minutes to wheedle some information out of him. Small Change MacFarlane, Glasgow's most successful bookie and Lorna's father, was, apparently, lying stretched out on his study floor, ruining the Wilton with several pints of O-negative.

'Whee think he whass chust in the door from the races,' my new Hebridean copper chum confided musically. 'He whas a bhookie you know. Somewhone clobbered him whith a statue hof his favourite greyhound… Billy Boy.'

I frowned my dismay. 'What are the odds of that?'

When McNab reappeared in the entrance hall, I was still on the threshold but could see past him, through the door and into the living room. Lorna was sitting on the sofa, distraught, and being comforted by her stepmother. I took a step into the house but was halted by McNab's huge hand on my chest.

'And what exactly was your involvement with Jimmy MacFarlane?'

I decided to continue our communication by glares and I gave McNab my best 'Take your fucking hand off me' look. It was as effective as if I'd spoken to him in Nepalese and the restraining hand remained planted on my chest.

'Small Change? None,' I said. 'I'm a... a friend of his daughter, that's all.'

'How good a friend?'

'Well, let's say we're seeing a lot of each other at the moment.'

'And that's your only connection with James MacFarlane?'

'I've met him a few times. Mainly through seeing Lorna,' I said, omitting to mention that Small Change had promised me a couple of tickets to the forthcoming big fight between local boy Bobby Kirkcaldy and the German Jan Schmidtke. The fact was that the first thing I'd thought about on hearing of his demise was whether Small Change had managed to earmark the tickets for me before getting his head pulped. I decided that expressing such sentiments would expose one of the less appealing aspects of my nature. There again, it maybe wasn't that bad: my second thought had been to wonder how long it would be after her father's death before Lorna would be in the right frame of mind for some more back-seat wrestling.

'No other business?' asked McNab. 'You haven't done any work for him? Snooping?'

I shook my head, suddenly feeling sullen. I looked down at the hand on my chest. A stout fist uncoiled. Thick fingers, flaky knuckles. Crisp white shirt cuffs beneath tweed.

'Well see and make sure to keep your nose out of this, Lennox,' he said. 'This is police business.'

'I've no intention of getting involved.' I frowned; I was confused by McNab clearly feeling the need to warn me off. 'What was the motive?'

'Well let's see…' McNab rubbed his chin with his free hand in mock thoughtfulness. 'MacFarlane was one of Glasgow's richest bookies and greyhound breeders. He just came back from the races with a bag full of cash which we can't locate... let me think... Got it! Crime of passion.'

'You should stick to what you're good at, Superintendent, and leave the sarcasm to me.'

'And you leave the police work to me. This is a simple robbery. We'll get this one all by ourselves, Lennox. A couple of days and we'll have the bastard in custody.'

'Ah,' I smiled, and nodded appreciatively. 'The Scottish legal system at work. A model of fairness and justice where every man is considered innocent until proven Catholic.'

I could picture the scene. Housebreakers, as burglars were called under Scottish law, tended not to use violence. I imagined a procession of the usual suspects having the crap beaten out of them at police headquarters. In the movies, police detectives were always reassuring people they questioned that it was 'just routine'. I wondered if that was the line the City of Glasgow Police used: 'We won't keep you long… it's just routine. A few more boots in the ribs then you'll be able to pick your teeth off the floor and leave…'

'Can I ask you a question?' McNab interrupted my musings.

'You're in the business of asking questions, Superintendent,' I said, without adding that usually the answers were beaten out of the mug being asked. 'Go ahead.'

'Why don't you fuck off to Canada?'

'Is that a question or the new slogan of the Canadian immigration bureau? It's catchy, I'll give you that.'

'You're quite the wag, aren't you Lennox?' He looked past me, or over me, out beyond the garden, as if he wasn't fully focussed on our conversation. Then, suddenly, he locked his eyes with mine and leaned in. His face in mine, his hand on my chest, there was no question about his focus now. 'Do you remember our last little chat in St Andrew's Square?' McNab referred to the City of Glasgow Police HQ.

'How could I forget? You, me and that charming lad from the Hebrides with the wet rag wrapped around his fist.'

'If you don't cut the wisecracks I could arrange a reunion… Keep your lip buttoned Lennox. Answer my question: why don't you fuck off back to Canada?'

'I like it here,' I replied, ignoring the logical pickle of answering his question with my lip buttoned. 'The Glasgow air agrees with me. If I were to leave, my pleurisy would probably clear up - and it's taken me such a long time to perfect it.' I sighed and gave a shrug. 'I don't know, maybe one day I might go back. When I'm ready.'

'I'd give it some serious thought if I were you.' He dropped the hand from my chest. It had been there so long I felt the warm, heavy ghost of it through my jacket and shirt. Point made and taken. Superintendent Willie McNab could put his hand on anyone in Glasgow, any time and for as long as he wanted. 'There's a lot of people I know who don't like you, Lennox. People who still think you know more about the McGahern case than you let on.'

'Then they're wrong.' I threw a hasty, fake smile over my discomfort at McNab once more digging up dead history. Very dead history. 'I keep telling you, Superintendent, there's a lot less to me than meets the eye. Can I go and talk to Lorna now?'

'Just remember to keep your nose out of this business with MacFarlane.' Lighting a Players, McNab took a long draw, then blew a jet of smoke out into the muggy Pollokshields night. 'Or I'll arrange a change of scenery for you myself. Am I clear?'

'Crystal… If there's one thing I can say about your veiled threats, Superintendent, it's that they're all threat and no veil.'

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all material © Craig Russell